The Leadership Contagion: What Virus Are You Spreading?

Smiling businessman standing amongst group_2“Every day, everywhere you go, you spread a virus.  You decide if that virus is positive or negative”Dr. John Izzo

“Because employees pay great attention to their leaders’ emotions, leaders can strongly influence the mood, and thus attitudes and performance, of their teams through emotional contagion.” – Wharton @ Work, University of Pennsylvania

By virtue of their position, it’s not hard to buy off on the proposition that leaders have a huge influence on the success or failure of their teams.

What IS hard to get our arms around, however, is the impact of the leader’s emotional makeup and mood on that influence, and its real importance in the context of all the other objective and tangible skills they bring to the table.

I was reading a book this week on team building by Liane Davey called “You First”, and I read the quote above by Dr. John Izzo.   It was one of those quotes that make you sit up in your chair, stop what you’re doing, and think.

I thought about the viruses I had spread throughout my career, just by virtue of my mood.  The way I walked into a room for a meeting, or a speech.

The contrasts were clear, and unmistakeable  – when I bounced in, with a grin on my face and energy to burn, the whole room followed my lead, and the presentation was electric, and meaningful.

If I trudged in, weighed down by my emotional and/or intellectual baggage and unfocused on what was in front of me, any words coming from my mouth were totally obliterated by the mood vibe that had infected the room.

As I contemplated those two different situations, I returned to Dr. Izzo’s words.    It really IS (and always should be) a conscious choice to project a positive or negative mood, and in hindsight, while I unconsciously made the positive choice more often than not, I wished I would have had that extra level of self-awareness to keep “good mood” at the top of my must-do daily checklist.

Now I turn to you, the reader of this post.  Most likely you still have many years of leadership opportunity in front of you.  Take this advice, and run with it:

Pay attention to your mood – make this part of your daily conscious choices.  You are spreading a virus every time you interact with your team – it’s the leadership contagion.   Make the decision to keep it positive.

If you need more evidence to take this advice to heart, here it is – I found some fascinating research cited by Louise Altman in a blog post in 2011:

In the past decade, there has been an important finding in neuroscience that should impact on how every leader leads – emotions are contagious.

One aspect of the research has been to examine the emotional impact of “bosses” on those who work for them – the power of mood to spread and “infect” others. “It is one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen,” said University of New Hampshire researcher, Richard Saavedra, and it’s all unconscious.”

In 2005, Saavedra and his colleagues at Cal State University at Long Beach examined the effects of leader’s moods on groups. 189 volunteer undergraduates were selected and divided into 63 groups of three and told they were participating in a team building exercise.

Before the exercise, a “leader” chosen from each team was shown one of two video clips — “Saturday Night Live” skits or a vignette on torture — designed to induce a positive or negative mood. All team members’ moods were measured before and after the task.

The results were definitive. Leader’s moods permeated the groups – and “negative” moods trumped the positive.

Mood makes an enormous difference, and it doesn’t have to be an unconscious practice.   Putting it in the forefront of your mind will give you a decided advantage in leading your team to greatness, for your influence will be not only seen, but deeply felt.

Because after all, you spread a very contagious virus.

Lead well!


  1. says

    Too few leaders catch onto this truth. Their attitudes and behaviors make or break their teams. As leaders, we have to be aware of this fact and keep our attitudes in check.

  2. says

    Hey Joseph, thanks for stopping by – yes, you are right, too few catch on to this. I wish I had earlier in my career.
    All the best,

  3. says

    Hi Terry, I’m so glad you were as inspired as I was by John Izzo’s words. As I shared in the book, those words made me realize that I was reacting to a difficult situation in a way that made it harder for everyone around me. Nine years later, I have learned to change my impact without changing organizations!


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