Most books and most popular writing about leadership make the assumption that to be a leader means to be influential. If I can get you to do what I want you to do, if I can influence your actions and attitudes, if I can motivate and persuade you with my vision, that usually equates to being a leader. Influence and leadership go together for most people. The great leaders in history—politicians, military heroes, educators, and artists—are usually identified as successful leaders because they were personally influential.
Our research, however, has uncovered an alternative that is more important than influence. It links leadership with positive energy. We have found that leaders who positively energize other people are far more effective in producing desired outcomes than those who are influential (see Owens, et al, 2016). Positive energizers uplift, elevate, and inspire individuals. They help other people flourish. Instead of focusing on getting people to do what they want—which is the primary aim of influence—positively energizing leaders focus on helping people accomplish what they themselves want. This means that positive energizers help guide and tutor desires and wants rather than merely convincing people that what the leader wants is best. Positive energizers seek to inspire the most desirable outcomes instead of focusing mainly on attaining an instrumental goal.
Our research has found that individuals who are positive energizers are four times more important in accounting for successful performance than people who are merely influential. Energy trumps influence by a factor of four in predicting success.
The explanation for why this occurs rests on the fact that energy is the life giving force in any living system. Life is intimately tied to energy. Life-giving energy, for example, is associated with light. In nature, the sun is considered to be the life-giving force. All living systems have an inclination toward light and away from dark—or toward positive energy and away from negative energy. This is called the heliotropic effect. It means that all living systems have an inclination toward that which is life giving and away from that which is life-depleting or life-diminishing. Every human being, in other words, tends to flourish in the presence of positive energy and languish in the presence of negative energy. Light is the most easily identified form of positive energy. Einstein indicated, in fact, that light is nature’s way of transferring energy through space (Blair, 2016).
When light hits the eye’s retina and the rod and cone cells within it, that light is immediately converted into energy. Light also activates chemical reactions in all living cells, so even single-cell organisms have light-sensitive molecules on their outer membranes that supply them with energy (see Doidge, 2016). Moscow University scientists Martinek and Berezin (1979) showed that our bodies are filled with numerous light-sensitive chemical switches and amplifiers. When we are exposed to positive energy—in the form of light, for example—our cells tend to flourish. When we are deprived of positive energy, our cells tend to languish.
In human beings, positive energy is also experienced through interpersonal relationships. This form of energy is called relational energy. It is experienced as the uplifting, renewing, life-giving energy that results from loving, supportive, or inspiring relationships. Positive relational energy produces the same elevating effects as the positive energy associated with light. It affects us at the basic cellular level. It engenders physiological flourishing, healing, and activation, so that human beings are stimulated by positive relational energy.
In our research, the positive relational energy demonstrated by leaders in organizations was found to significantly improve individual employees’ well-being, engagement, and job performance. It also significantly affected the organization’s learning, creativity, and effectiveness. That is, relational energy produced the same kinds of benefits as energy associated with light.
One implication for leaders in any circumstance, therefore, is that the relational energy they demonstrate in the form of supportive, uplifting, renewing relationships is a far more important resource upon which they can rely than their titles, status, influence techniques, or power base. Relational energy is life-giving and heliotropic. And, importantly, anyone can be a positive energizer—a senior influential position is not required.
Blair, B. (2016) “Light as energy.” (http://blair.pha.jhu.edu/spectroscopy/basics.html)
Doidge, N. (2016) The Brain’s Way of Healing. New York: Penguin Books.
Martinek, K. and Berezin, I.V. (1979) “Artificial light-sensitive enzymatic systems as chemical amplifiers of weak light signals.” Photochemistry and Photobiology, 29: 637-650.
Owens, B., Baker, W., Sumpter, D., and Cameron, K. (2016) “Relational energy at work: Implications for job engagement and job performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 101: 35-49.