Insights + Research

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Do Happy Leaders Lead Better?

Read time: 3 minutes

Transformational leaders may be born or made. In either case, positivity and a leader’s own feelings of happiness at work enable them to lead in a transformational manner.

 As leaders we are continually reminded on the need to balance work and play, but many of us struggle with competing deadlines and priorities and find it difficult to put this into practice. Likewise, we have all seen leaders become so stressed by their workloads that there is a visible ripple effect in the workplace… or is there?

While it seems logical that happy leaders make better leaders, a recent article by Jin, Seo and Shapiro (2016) tested the validity of this assumption.


What is “leading better”?

The article describes good leadership as that which reflects the attributes of ‘transformational leadership’, as opposed to ‘transactional leadership’. For those who are not familiar with the terms ‘transformational’ and ‘transactional’, let me explain:

Transactional leaders have been historically both popular and prevalent. As the term implies, transactional leaders are aware of and use the link between effort and reward. They rely on standard forms of reward and punishment to control their followers. Therefore, their leadership plans often include setting goals for their followers and then rewarding desired performance. Generally their leadership style is responsive and concentrates only on current issues and problems.

Conversely, transformational leaders are those who act beyond exchange relations, evoking and arousing emotions in their followers resulting in strong motivation. Transformational leaders are proactive, they are notable in their ability to inspire and provide intellectual stimulation and “idealised influence” to their followers.  Instead of goal setting, they create learning opportunities for their followers and stimulate growth.

Transformational leaders are exceptionally adept at creating a compelling vision and developing strong emotional bonds with their followers.


Transformational versus transactional leaders: What’s the difference?

Transformational Leader Transactional Leader
Proactive / Forward looking Reactive / Focus on present
Motivates through inspiration and values Motivates through goal setting, reward and punishment
Focus on people & possibilities Focus on systems & structure
Open to new ideas Less open to ideas, more traditional approach
Low importance of supervision High importance of supervision
Followers show commitment Followers show compliance


How they did it.

In order to examine whether happy leaders are indeed better leaders, the authors studied 357 managers across multiple industries and 1404 of their direct reports or ‘followers’.  The researchers specifically defined ‘happiness’ as that of a ‘pleasant core affect’ (for example, feeling happy, excited and enthusiastic about your work) and they asked the managers to rate their happiness once each day.  Meanwhile, their followers were asked to provide 360 degree feedback on their leader’s transformational leadership behaviour at work and the quality of the working relationship they enjoyed with their leader.


So are happy leaders more transformational in their style?

The results of the study found that the extent to which leaders engage in ‘good’ or transformational leadership is significantly influenced by the extent to which leaders experience happiness at work.  In other words, leaders who are happy in their work are more likely to employ effective leadership techniques.

And the findings suggest that happiness (aka positivity) is not solely the domain of leaders who exhibit a high degree of commitment to their organisation.  While this partly true, it is not the only factor which defines whether a leader is happy and therefore capable of inspiring happiness and positivity in others.

At Red Giant we regularly appoint leaders to key senior and executive roles across industry sectors and often during times of significant change and heightened stress.  Time and again we have found that the best way to ensure that these people are capable of embracing their new roles with a positive, emboldened and ‘happy’ mindset, is to accurately assess cultural alignment or ‘fit’.  Get this wrong and both the leader and the people they lead will suffer, but get it right and the impact of the transformational leadership they practice will be profound and far reaching.



Jin, S., Myeong-Gu, S. & Shapiro, D.L. (2016). Do happy leaders lead better? Affective and attitudinal antecedents of transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 27, 64-8. 

Schermerhorn, J.R., James, G. H. & Osborn, R.N. (1991). Managing Organizational Behaviour, Fourth Edition, pp. 484-5.

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