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Issue: Winter 2003

An Interview with Dr. Bernard M. Bass

By Adele Bergstrom, CMC ’05
This interview was conducted October 4, 2002.

Academic Citation: Adele Bergstrom, "An Interview with Dr. Bernard M. Bass," Kravis Leadership Institute Leadership Review, Winter 2003.

Bernard M. Bass, Ph.D., is the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior at Binghamton University in New York. Bass is a member of the Board of Governors of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College. His professional background includes the publication of Transformational Leadership: Industrial, Military and Educational Impact (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, 1998), the Bass and Stogdill Handbook of Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1990), and Leadership and Performance beyond Expectations (New York: Free Press, 1985) and many other works. Currently, he is working on the 4th edition of Handbook of Leadership.

In 1994, Bass was awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. He has been honored by national and international organizations for distinguished practice in psychology. Bass received his Ph.D. and master’s degree in industrial psychology, and his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio State University. He and his wife Ruth have been married for 56 years. They have four children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Question: Leadership Review Good afternoon, Dr. Bass. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I understand you have studied psychology for many years. What is your experience as a professor?

Answer: Dr. Bernard Bass I have been teaching for 55 years. I taught psychology at LSU, and then I had the good fortune to be a visiting professor at Berkeley in the psychology department. Later, I switched to business schools because I found that I was more interested in the problems of leadership in organizations than I was in the methodology that psychology tends to focus on. So I went to the University of Pittsburgh for six years, for the Graduate School of Business, and later to Binghamton University in New York, where I retired in 1993.

Q: What specifically was it that made you switch to studying business organizations?

A: I found that in business schools, they were more problem-focused in their research. I also found I had a lot more common interests with people in accounting, finance and marketing, and other aspects of psychology as they applied to business than with those studying clinical psychology.

Q: How do you conduct experiments in the business workplace?

A: Research is done by either survey or laboratory studies. A third way is observational, which is becoming more and more popular. I ended up doing mainly survey research and experiments. Within that experimental method, there are field experiments, where you set up conditions in an industrial setting.

Q: How would you define an ethical leader?

A: A leader whose effort is to be a benefit to others and avoid harming others.

Q: I understand you’ve published many books, most recently Transformational Leadership. What is this about and how did it begin?

A: It essentially focused on the research and applications of transformational leadership. And the story behind that is I met one of my former graduate students, who is now chairman of the management department at Bucknell in 1979, and he said, “Have you read Jim Burn’s book on leadership? You should, it’s a good book.” And that’s where the idea came from. It came from research that I began at Binghamton in 1980. I started out thinking that transformational leadership is a dynamic approach to leadership that had nothing to do with morality. Jim Burns originally saw that a transformational leader was somebody who was uplifting—raised the moral values—as well as got people to do more than they expected to do. I looked at the first part, but subsequently I changed my mind and came up with the concept also of pseudo-transformational leadership—they look like a transformational leader, but in fact it’s not authentic.

Q: So the pseudo-transformational leader is appearing to be moral and promoting everyone to be ethical, but underneath is really not doing that?

A: Yes. I use the simple example of the Pied Piper, who entices the children to follow him to their own harm. And that goes a long way in helping to deal with all the destructive leaders who have very strong appeals that get people to do things that harm themselves and others.

Q: Have you done any long-term studies on this subject?

A: I’ve developed scales to measure pseudo-transformational leadership in contrast to true transformational leadership. At this point, I’m planning to work on seeing how well we discriminate the true transformational leaders from the pseudo-transformational ones: who may be deceiving themselves and others.

Q: Do you have any mentors that sparked your interest in leadership?

A: Yes, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was the first Ph.D. student of Professor Cal Shartle. He had become a specialist in occupational information. He published reports, organized the directory of occupational information, described how jobs could be listed according to the work being done and the materials used. When he came to Ohio State, he came with a plan to study supervisors and higher-level leaders as well. That was not the usual study—at that time, most publications on the subject of leadership dealt with the traits that were needed to be a leader and Shartle started with the idea that we have to know what leaders do, so his whole focus was on the behavior of leaders. And that’s where I got started.

Q: : In light of Enron and other current corporate scandals, what can we do to rebuild trust in the ethics of corporate leaders?

A: From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem to help much to educate adults, for example MBAs or students like you, in accounting to become more ethical than you are now. The problem is that you’ve got to start with character building that goes back to childhood; and there, of course, your parents and your early schoolteachers come in—we think that makes a difference. At the level of developing character at a young age, role modeling is important and to what extent we start to work under a highly ethical role model I think it rubs off. And vice versa: if we work under a charlatan, I think that rubs off.

In the last 10 years or so, there has been a big increase in the number of required courses in business schools. I was particularly pleased when I went to Binghamton, the business school faculty was led more by the accounting department, and their strongest efforts were in the efforts of accounting regulation and accounting ethics.

You can constrain people from doing wrong, but it’s not the same thing as changing their moral values. I think we need continuously stronger regulation. Steps now are being taken that should have been taken many years ago, in terms of regulating accounting activities of large and small corporations. At this time, most of the largest companies have ethical codes of conduct, so at least you can read what you’re not supposed to do and what you’re supposed to do. Part of it is in understanding how to deal with ethical dilemmas. Sometimes what’s ethical to one person is unethical to another. The amount of literature available on ethics and leadership is minimal. It’s sort of agreed that the best of leaders are ethical leaders. There is some literature that is commentary going back to Aristotle and Plato about what you should and shouldn’t do. There are some normative studies—when you give people two options, one is more ethical—and the results are pretty appalling. Part of this is the pressure to perform as managers and cutting corners can be the easier choice.

Q: Can we apply leadership theories across fields such as business, national politics, local politics, and non-profit organizations?

A: I have collected data on many different organizations in at least 20 countries and the evidence is fairly clear: while situations make a difference, if you’re running a law firm it’s not the same thing as running a shoe factory, but still there are more similarities in what makes a good leader than there are differences. We tend to focus on the differences. And this is true across countries as well. Leaders tend to be more energetic, smart, responsible, etc.

Q: What do you think of leadership studies as a separate academic field at colleges and universities? As you know, Claremont McKenna College offers a Leadership Studies Sequence.

A: When I looked at a number of charters of universities, many of them said that one of their main purposes was preparing the leaders of tomorrow, etc., but many of them never thought much about how to do it. Since the increase in leadership research, management training, and military training, there are now more schools that actually have leadership programs.

Q: What kinds of pressures does technology place on today’s leaders?

A: Increasingly more interaction at work takes place by computer than face-to-face. We not only have to use this virtual team of relationships and indirect leadership, but also to see the extent to which we don’t lose too much by lack of face-to-face relationships. Generally, technology is helpful because of the high speed at which information flows through an organization. But without the face-to-face contact, misinterpretations are more common because we can’t get immediate feedback from nonverbal cues. There is also the problem with overloading because we get so much that we start ignoring half of it. As a leader, you are often caught without nonverbal cues from followers that help you stay on target. I know when I’m running a virtual team, I often bite my tongue because I start thinking about the possible interpretations of what I’m saying.

Q: What other long-term studies on leadership have you conducted?

A: In the 1940’s there was a lot of research on networks. Networking also means that traditional hierarchies of organizations are no longer as valid as they once were. There is a lot of cross-talk between people of different levels that generally is all to the good, and the organizations are “flattening.” This leads to one reason why women are more effective managers than men. Men are more comfortable with hierarchy. For example, I ran a workshop with Bell Labs with 24 participants—12 men and 12 women. I collected descriptions of their leadership behavior and scaled it based on a leadership questionnaire filled out by their subordinates. They were all anonymous. They each had numbers. I picked out the participants with the four highest charismatic leadership scores and it turned out all four were women. They were also more inspirational. They were more transformational. I also took a survey in New Zealand with similar results. We then gathered data of about 1,000 cases together with the same results. The meta-analysis—where we take many studies of the same topic and calculate the correlations—showed the same thing.

Q: So then why aren’t more women CEO’s?

A: : Good question. I wrote an article called “Shatter the Glass Ceiling.” You should read it!

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