Julian Barling is the Borden Chair of Leadership at the Smith School of Business, and author of The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders. Julie Weatherhead is a doctoral student at Smith School of Business.
Poverty is like a parasite – it infects our society and saps our collective energy. Growing up in poverty prevents children from achieving their full potential, which means we, as a society, miss out on their unique perspectives, skills and talents. While that is a shame at any level, it is a special loss at the leadership level, where fresh thinking and differing experiences can lead to the type of revolutionary ideas that bring about profound change.
The effects of childhood poverty are felt into adulthood, affecting work experiences and job opportunities. As research has shown, children exposed to poverty are more likely to experience poorer parent-child relationships, more family disruption, family and community violence, and an inferior quality of education. Even their physical environment is worse, with poor children exposed to less physical space, poorer living conditions and nutrition. Exacerbating all of this is that mobility out of poverty is rare. Even for those who manage to escape poverty, many of the harmful effects remain.
Two studies recently investigated the link between childhood poverty and later leadership behaviours. In 2015, Professors Jennifer Kish-Gephart and Joanna Tochman Campbell found that for different developmental reasons, chief executive officers who had grown up either very rich or very poor were more likely to engage in more strategic risk-taking. In 2016, Professors Sean Martin, Stéphane Côté and Todd Woodruff showed that higher levels of parental income were associated with narcissism as an adult, which had a negative effect on leadership effectiveness.
Expanding on these studies, we used data from 4,536 children in the nationally representative U.S.-based National Longitudinal Study of Youth to see whether growing up in poverty affects whether people will emerge as organizational leaders and why.
After controlling for age (because older participants would have had more time to emerge as leaders), we found that children who had grown up in poverty were disproportionately less likely to be in leadership positions in their organizations than those who had grown up in higher socioeconomic status households.
Our results, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also explain how this happened. Children raised in poverty had less access to the institutional (high-quality schools) and personal resources (a sense of personal mastery, the belief that people can influence their future) that would typically help them succeed in leadership competitions. Poor-quality schooling and lower personal mastery decreased the likelihood that participants found themselves in a leadership position. Importantly, gender mattered. The effect of personal mastery on leader emergence was only significant for males; females derived no benefit from higher levels of personal mastery in assuming a leadership position.
Ensuring that all children can aspire to leadership roles, and that neither poverty nor gender are barriers to leadership emergence, are worthy goals consistent with the tenets of a just society. Reducing the extent to which the poor are disproportionately led by the rich will reduce the gaping inequality that pervades organizations and societies. Business schools have a role to play in creating these changes. Most low-income people are or will be members of organizations, and achieving these goals would increase and diversify the available talent pool for organizations. Breaking the long-standing silence by management scholars on issues of poverty will help strengthen organizations and society.
Governments also have a role. Societal solutions are already available, but are in need of resources and political courage – affordable housing, a guaranteed basic income, investment in higher-quality secondary and postsecondary education, and support for social programs that foster people's sense of personal mastery. Governments have always played a primary role in investing in the physical infrastructure of our country, but it is now time for governments to develop our human infrastructure – one that allows all children equal opportunities to rise to positions of organizational and societal leadership. Only then can we claim a fair and equal society.