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, 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.
1. Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by fostering a positive work climate.
Empirical evidence suggests that working in a positive climate has substantial positive effects on individual and organizational performance. Among the leadership enablers that affect the work climate are fostering (1) compassion—which means providing social and emotional support in times when others are experiencing difficulty, stress, or pain—(2) forgiveness—which means acknowledging the mistake or offense, identifying a purpose to which employees can look forward, maintaining high expectations or standards of performance, providing support for harmed persons, and helping people let go of feelings of offense and grudges—and (3) expressions of gratitude at work—which may entail frequently acknowledging positive occurrences at work, having employees keep gratitude journals, recording the best things that occurred during the day, and distributing gratitude notes to individual employees. Such a climate is associated with positive physiological effects, mental and emotional effects, and organizational performance effects.
2. Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by fostering positive relationships among members.
Empirical evidence suggests that experiencing positive interpersonal relationships produces an array of positive physiological, mental, social, and emotional benefits for individuals and elevated performance for organizations. This not merely because people feel good or have their needs met in interpersonal relationships. Rather, it is a product of the contributions people make to the other parties in the relationship. That is, making contributions to relationships more than receiving benefits from relationships is the main factor that produces positive outcomes. Positive leaders emphasize and build on other people’s strengths (what they do well) rather than focus on their weaknesses or problems.
3. Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by fostering positive communication.
Empirical evidence suggests that an abundance of positive communication compared to negative communication is related to higher levels of organizational performance. Engagement, information exchange, and commitment all are enhanced in the presence of positive communication. Among the many strategies that may foster positive communication are the use of (1) best-self feedback—a process that helps people identify their strengths, gifts, and talents and build upon them, and (2) supportive communication—a way leaders can provide corrective or negative feedback in ways that encourage, strengthen, and enhance the relationship as well as individual performance.
4. Positive leaders enable extraordinary performance by associating the work being done with positive meaning and profound purpose.
Empirical evidence suggests that when people experience positive meaning in their tasks—or a sense of calling—performance is elevated and individual well-being is enhanced. Leaders enhance the meaningfulness of the task in at least four ways. (1) identify the positive impact that the work produces on the well-being of people; (2) associate the work with a virtue or an important personal value; (3) identify the long-term effects of the activity that may produce effects extending beyond immediate outcomes; (4) focus on pursuing contribution goals more than self-interest achievement goals.
These prescriptions—as well as a variety of other research outcomes–highlight the important and the potency of positive leadership in producing unusually positive organizational performance. They are elaborated by my book, Positive Leadership. These positive leadership strategies help elevate performance beyond what is typical of most organizations operating today.