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Rob Koonce

An Interview with Rob Koonce

By Scott Donaldson


1. Congratulations on becoming the 2016 chair of the Leadership Development MIG for the International Leadership Association (ILA).  What are your plans for the term? Do you have a vision for the group?

Thank you.  While chairing the ILA Followership Learning Community over the past couple of years, I saw an opportunity to further explore the emerging space between leadership, followership, and positive psychology and thought this new role would be a great opportunity. As a social entrepreneur, I love thinking about the progression of ideas.  Last year, I originated and co-developed the first International Followership Symposium. It ended up being the largest pre-conference event for ILA’s global conference in San Diego. Given my passion for the topic of followership, it was exciting to see one of the smallest parts of ILA make the biggest impact. I now look to ILA Atlanta in 2016 and find myself pondering the question of how to draw energy to a new idea relevant to leader and follower development.

Earlier in the year, I had the thought of starting a new ILA Leadership Development Workshop Series. After attending the 4th World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) this summer which was a truly memorable event for me (Thanks Kim, James, Meg, and so many others!), I decided to make leadership and positive psychology the focus of our first initiative for this series.  When I look back to where positive psychology was in 2003 or so when I was first introduced to it and how it is beginning to influence other fields today, it is a bit staggering and exciting. Think about what Stewart Donaldson is doing with positive evaluation or James Pawelski with the positive humanities. How inspiring! My mind shifts to positive performance reviews (or performance previews…imagine having a conversation that focuses on people’s strengths while addressing weaknesses. A recent HBR article also references new ideas that are beginning to emerge in this area.) The applications are many. We need to keep pushing this engine forward.


2. Your research on positive leadership looks at follower job satisfaction as a predictor of leader-follower exchange.  What implications does this research have on managers and employees alike? It would be great if you could also comment on your opinion of the intersection between positive psychology and leadership.

Thank you for asking this question. Reaching back a few years, my dissertation looked at leader verbal communication theory through the bi-directional lens of leader-follower relations. Despite what we so often read, leader verbal communication is not simply a unidirectional process involving what I described as leader-to-follower verbal communication. Leader verbal communication also involves bi-directional leader-followerexchange. I am not the first person to recognize this distinction. However, using follower job satisfaction as a predictor variable, my research then asked the unique question of whether the job satisfaction of a follower in the bi-directional exchange of a specific leader-follower dyad could potentially be used to also predict how a follower from a specific leader-follower dyad would, in turn, lead others.  The use of structural equation modeling in this quantitative correlational study provided the opportunity to at least suggest that this influence may be worthy of further consideration. Despite the obvious limitations of a single study, the idea of using follower job satisfaction as a predictor variable in verbal communication theory has the potential to bring new meaning to the workplace.  For having that initial thought, I remain grateful. Sometimes alternative lenses are where we find the most interesting ideas.

As to your question of how positive psychology intersects with leadership, some statistics suggest that as many as 50,000 books on leadership are published each year. Even if we assume that number is inflated by as much as 50%, the implications are still astounding especially when we consider how little continues to be written about leadership in the context of followership and positive psychology. It is time for us to ask questions which can help to change this dynamic in a more positive way.  

Five weeks prior to attending the 4th World Congress, I authored a case entitled All in “the Family”: Leading and Following through Individual, Relational, and Collective Mindsets.  The case will appear in a forthcoming book for which I also served as lead editor entitled Followership in Action: Cases and Commentaries to be released by Emerald Group Publishing in March 2016. I have been thinking about the context of that case over the past couple of years. I hope that it helps to generate new conversations in leadership, followership, and positive psychology.

With that said, three terms drive my interest in leadership, followership, and positive psychology: organizational capacity, relational capacity, and generative capacity. Hallie Preskill, a former professor and key figure in the field of evaluation, first introduced me several years ago to the terms organizational capacity and generative capacity. I recall being deeply enamored with the potential of those terms in a graduate course on Appreciative Inquiry. I later examined relational capacity as part of my doctoral pursuits. It was almost like a trilogy for which I had been searching for so many years had been laid before me to further explore. It was very empowering.

As taught by Appreciative Inquiry, the generative capacity of an organization is limited by our appreciation for what is, imagining what might be, determining what should be, and creating what will be. As I wrote in an editorial reflection at the beginning of our upcoming book, this generativity, or lack thereof, begins with individuals who as active and passive participants influence relationships which, in turn, drive organizational processes. How we can look at that dynamic and not appreciate what positive psychology has to offer leadership is really beyond me. Suffice it to say that I am excited to be a part of the conversation.


3. What advice do you have for students who are interested in a career in positive leadership? Are there career opportunities that presently exist?

As the world increasingly adapts to positive psychology in the years ahead, opportunities in this field will continue to emerge. However, it is unrealistic to think that you can walk into any organization with blinders on and expect them to immediately listen to everything that you have to say about leadership, followership, and positive psychology. This is not likely to happen.  However, as we move forward, I think that it becomes crucially important for each of us to continually ask, “How can I use what I know and continue to learn about positive psychology to make a difference?” For those who are interested, I would also suggest combining graduate or doctoral studies in positive leadership (or, more generally, positive psychology) with a MBA (and possibly even a DBA, or EdD in a business area).  Why? Business drives organizational processes. That part will likely never change. Those who understand business may be in a better position to help drive positive change.


About Rob Koonce:

Published on subjects ranging from leadership to metabolic disease, Dr. Rob Koonce has spent the past three decades working in business, education, medicine, and the legal profession.  As a professor, social entrepreneur, and consultant, Dr. Koonce now enjoys utilizing his life experiences to help others think more boldly about the world around them.  Recognized as a leading voice in followership, Rob served as lead editor and author for Followership in Action: Cases and Commentaries (Emerald Group Publishing, UK, March 2016) and has spoken at various professional venues throughout the world.