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Carroll Connection

Looking for Leaders? Consider the “Class Transitioners,” says Holder of Newly Endowed Professorship

by william bole

Sean Martin

When searching for managers and leaders, employers will often keep an eye out for a number of personality traits—including integrity, decisiveness, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to collaborate fruitfully. Speaking to an overflow audience in Gasson Hall recently, Sean R. Martin (Management and Organization) presented research that pointed to another, often overlooked factor: how far the potential leaders traveled in life to get where they are.

In his lecture titled “Social Class: Understanding Its Effects in the Workplace,” Martin called attention to “class transitioners.” These are people who start out in one socioeconomic class and end up in another (typically a higher destination). They are “organizationally valuable,” more creative, more culturally sensitive, and better able to bridge gaps between different groups than others who haven’t made the class transition, according to his findings.

Martin’s September 8 lecture inaugurated the Mancini Family Sesquicentennial Assistant Professorship, of which he is the first holder. Raymond “Ray” Mancini ’60, MBA’11 and his wife, Ann—three of whose children graduated from Boston College—have endowed the position on behalf of their entire family. Ray has owned and operated two major distribution firms for beverages and flooring products.

Universities have long used endowed professorships to honor outstanding senior faculty members. Endowed assistant professorships are a more recent innovation—usually aimed at keeping and attracting the most impressive young academics while providing support for their research. Martin's assistant professorship is one of ten in the Sesquicentennial Challenge initiative, part of Boston College's Light the World 150th anniversary campaign. Recently the University also unveiled a ten-year Strategic Plan that calls for 100 new endowed professorships, mainly for senior faculty.

In addition to Martin’s lecture, attended by more than 200 students, faculty, and friends, the inaugural celebration of the Mancini Professorship included talks by University Provost David Quigley and Andy Boynton, the Carroll School of Management’s John and Linda Powers Family Dean, along with two Mancini family members—Deborah Mancini Morrocco ’81, P’10, ’14, and Raymond Thomas Mancini III ’19.

Boynton related that in his conversations with Ray Mancini, the 1960 alum has credited his family’s success in part to Boston College’s faculty, calling them an “underlying constant” that has helped guide successive generations of the family through “our formative years as undergraduates and prepare us for the world beyond.” The dean also described Martin as a fitting first holder of the Mancini professorship, saying the assistant professor’s “day-to-day interactions with our students help cultivate them as ethical leaders for tomorrow.”

“Feelings of Entitlement”

Martin’s research has focused mainly on the values and behaviors of leaders, and how they influence followers and entire organizations. His articles have appeared in publications including the Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, and Harvard Business Review, and popular outlets such as the Washington Post have run articles about his research.

One of the first slides in the professor’s presentation summarized part of that research—with the heading, “Parental Wealth and Narcissism.” Together with collaborators, Martin has found in one study that leaders who come from higher-income households tend to exhibit higher levels of narcissism including “feelings of entitlement”—for example, the expectation that others will defer to their opinions. Such attitudes made these leaders less effective than they otherwise might have been; they seemed less likely, for instance, to show concern for their followers or encourage innovative thinking.

The findings were based in part on a study of West Point graduates, drawing on responses to questionnaires by U.S. Army leaders and their followers, as well as records such as college applications made available by the military academy. (One of Martin’s coauthors, Col. Todd Woodruff, directs leadership and management studies at West Point.)

Then Martin looked at the “class transitioners,” particularly those who have moved into a higher socioeconomic class. As leaders, they’re less likely to harbor those feelings of entitlement and they’re better able to accurately judge other people’s emotions. “People who move from one class to the other develop cultural intelligence,” Martin said, referring to their ability to bring together people of different backgrounds. “They bridge gaps more than others do.”

But there’s a downside. While demonstrating admirable traits such as creative thinking, these people are also often “lonely—they don’t feel as much like they belong. And they’re exhausted,” in part by constantly explaining one group to another, Martin added in a thumbnail sketch of his latest research. These particular findings are based partly on a recent study of tech professionals in Silicon Valley; a related article with coauthor Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto is under review at a prominent management journal.

Offering caveats, Martin cautioned that his research indicates only a “correlation” between parental wealth and narcissistic leadership qualities; it doesn’t mean that a given person with such a background will exhibit those qualities. Also, leaders who come from wealth don’t necessarily perform worse than others—there’s just no clear evidence that they perform any better, despite the advantages of their upbringing, according to Martin. The research so far is largely inconclusive on the question of overall performance.

An End-of-Lecture Revelation

After laying out the findings, Martin raised the question: “Why do I care?” At that point, he clicked on a photo of himself as a small child—with a hole in his sweatpants at the knee, wearing knockoff sneakers from Payless. The Carroll School professor—who graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2003 and ultimately from Cornell University with a Ph.D.—is one of those who made the class transition.

As to why people in the audience should care, Martin pointed to Jesuit values that call for lifting people up, and the traditional role of universities as “primary gateways for class transitions,” among other reasons. Finally, he said, “It’s just the right thing to do, to help lift people up and give them a shot.”

During the Q&A, a young woman asked a question presumably on behalf of those from the upper echelons—whether someone could learn the cultural intelligence described by Martin, perhaps through immersion experiences. “It would need to be a prolonged period and experience, but it’s valuable for all of us to burst through our bubbles” and gain exposure to different people and groups, he said. A middle-aged man asked how the research might affect the way an employer decides on a job candidate. “I tend to be more impressed by the person who fought harder to get there,” Martin replied, while cautioning again that his findings are “correlative” and don’t predict who will perform at the highest levels.

With that measured advice, the late-afternoon lecture gave way to a spirited reception in Gasson’s first-floor rotunda, following vigorous applause for the inaugural Mancini Family Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor.

William Bole is senior writer and editor at the Carroll School of Management.

Photography by Lee Pelligrini.