The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Leadership Matters

“Positive leadership refers to promoting outcomes such as thriving at work, interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behaviors, positive emotions, and energizing networks.”

Kim S. Cameron | May 1, 2015
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A portrait of Abraham Lincoln, one of the quintessential leaders in American history.



Leadership matters. Recent research reveals that the single most important factor in accounting for the performance of an organization is the leader. It is not the only factor, of course, but it accounts for the most variance. When we provide prescriptions for something that important, we want to be confident that those prescriptions are accurate. When outcomes count, when achieving desired results matter a great deal, we want validated, empirically confirmed directions. In fields such as medicine and pharmacy, we would not consider prescribing something that has not been empirically tested.

A quick scan of Amazon.com reveals more than 130,000 books on leadership. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these leadership books are based on the prescriptions of celebrated leaders recounting their own experiences, motivating writers offering advice based on personal experiences, or on storytellers’ recitations of inspirational examples. These books are usually uplifting, but they do not have the advantage of empirically verified, validated prescriptions. Evidence-based practice is frequently missing.

This is why the Wheatley Institution is sponsoring research on leadership and, specifically, on a particular form of leadership found to be especially effective in fostering extraordinarily positive results. This form of leadership is referred to as positive leadership.

Positive leadership refers to the ways in which leaders enable positively deviant performance

Positive leadership refers to the ways in which leaders enable positively deviant performance, foster an affirmative orientation in organizations, and engender a focus on virtuousness and eudaemonism. Positively deviant performance means achieving outcomes that dramatically exceed common or expected performance. An affirmative orientation refers to a focus on strengths and capabilities and enabling thriving and flourishing at least as much as addressing obstacles and impediments. A focus on virtuousness and the eudaemonic assumption refers to the inclination in all human systems toward goodness for its intrinsic value and toward achieving the best of the human condition. Positive leadership pursues these ends as its primary focus. It is based on research arising from the newly emerging fields of positive organizational scholarship (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012), positive psychology (Seligman, 1999), and positive change (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987).

In sum, positive leadership refers to an emphasis on what elevates individuals and organizations (in addition to what challenges them), what goes right in organizations (in addition to what goes wrong), what is life-giving (in addition to what is problematic or life-depleting), what is experienced as good (in addition to what is objectionable), what is extraordinary (in addition to what is merely effective), and what is inspiring (in addition to what is difficult or arduous). Positive leadership refers to promoting outcomes such as thriving at work, interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behaviors, positive emotions, and energizing networks.

Four strategies have been found to be especially effective in implementing positive leadership and producing positively deviant organizational performance.