The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Positive Leadership Requires Positive Energy

“Positive energy is the life-giving force that creates the capacity to perform, to create, and to persist.”

Kim S. Cameron | December 8, 2014
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There is one smiley-face in a sea of blue, frowning faces. This happy person can have a positive influence on those that they lead.

The Wheatley Institution sponsors the study and development of positive leadership. At the heart of positive leadership lies the concept of positive energy. It is almost impossible to be a positive leader without also being a source of positive energy to others. Whereas the popular literature is dominated by discussions about the toll of stress, burnout, depression, tension, anxiety, fatigue, disengagement, and fear in organizations and society, less attention is paid to positive energy and how it is fostered, enabled, and created. Yet, positive energy is one of the most powerful and important predictors of organizational and inpidual success.

Positive energy is characterized by a feeling of aliveness, arousal, vitality, and zest. It is the life-giving force that creates the capacity to perform, to create, and to persist. But knowing how to foster positive energy requires that we distinguish among several different types of energy—physical, mental, emotional, and relational.

Positive energy is characterized by a feeling of aliveness, arousal, vitality, and zest.

When physical energy is expended, as when running a marathon, it is depleted, and we need rest and recovery time in order to renew it. The same is true of mental energy. When intense mental effort is expended—as when studying for an exam or engaging in a challenging problem—we become mentally fatigued. We need mental breaks and relaxation time to renew. Similarly, emotional energy is depleted as we experience emotions—as in impassioned excitement in an athletic contest or intense sadness with the break-up of a relationship. Burnout is an example of emotional exhaustion, and we need recuperation time in order to replenish.

Relational energy, on the other hand, is expanded and renewed by its expression. Relational energy produces uplift and rejuvenation. Expressing and receiving relational energy causes it to increase rather than decrease. This kind of energy is associated with positive interpersonal relationships as when we are involved in a loving, supportive relationship. Our energy is not diminished or exhausted as a result of the interaction; rather it is renewed and elevated. Positive leadership implies exhibiting and enabling positive relational energy.

The organizational unit in which these people worked had significantly more cohesion among employees

My colleagues and I conducted studies in four large organizations with the purpose of assessing positive energy in unit leaders (Owens, Baker, & Cameron, 2014). We wanted to explore the impact of positively energizing leaders on the performance of employees and of organizations. Respondents in our study rated the extent to which they were energized in their interactions with the organization’s leader. The study revealed that when inpiduals are energized by their leader, they have significantly higher levels of personal well-being, satisfaction with their jobs, engagement in their organization, job performance, and family well-being than those without positively energizing leaders. Moreover, the organizational unit in which these people worked had significantly more cohesion among employees, an orientation toward learning, experimentation and creativity, and performance than units without an energizing leader.

The impact of having an energizing leader at work, in other words, was found to be extremely powerful. In fact, positive energy was found to be four times more important in predicting performance than the amount of information or knowledge possessed by the leader, and four times more important than the influence or position power possessed by the leader.

Being a positively energizing leader is not the same as being an extrovert, gregarious, charismatic, or perky. Rather, positive energy is associated with a set of behaviors that can be learned and developed by anyone. Among the attributes identified by executives when describing positive energizers in their organizations are the following.

They connect with others as people.

They are trustworthy and have integrity.

They are dependable and follow through.

They help other people flourish.

They are heedful and fully engaged.

They are genuine and authentic.

They see opportunities more than roadblocks.

They solve problems for others.

They smile and are seldom solemn.

They express gratitude and humility.

They are flexible and open to others ideas.

They are unselfish and team players.

The scientific evidence is clear: positive energizers are significantly higher performers than their colleagues, and positive energy is, by a large margin, more significant factor in predicting the performance of inpiduals and organizations than people’s titles, the information they possess, the influence they exert, and their personality attributes. In my own work, I have found that energy is a dramatically under-utilized resource by most leaders, and when it is displayed and fostered in organizations, it is among the most important factors in accounting for escalating performance.