This article originally appeared in the March/April, 2018 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.
Leadership experts like John Maxwell emphasize that the success of organizations and teams is heavily dependent on the quality of leadership. Research in recent years is demonstrating the most effective leadership approach is Positive Leadership. What is Positive Leadership? Professor and author Kim Cameron summarizes, “Positive leadership refers to the implementation of multiple positive practices that help individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy, and achieve levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise.”
Research has shown that Positive Leadership drives great results such as more positive mood, enhanced job satisfaction, greater engagement, and improved performance. Let’s discover how we can become even more positive leaders by examining some of the strategies they use.
Key Strategies of Positive Leaders
Positive Leaders Embrace the Servant Leadership Philosophy
The most effective and positive leaders are those that understand and practice the philosophy of “servant leadership.” Servant leaders feel their role is to serve others — employees, customers, and other key stakeholders. If you think about the most respected and effective leaders you know, chances are they saw themselves as “serving leaders,” not “self-serving leaders.” The most notable leaders throughout history such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa embraced the philosophy stated by Jesus that “anybody wanting to be the leader must first be the servant. If you want to lead, you must serve.” Servant leadership has been championed by the most prolific leadership and management authors of our time (e.g. John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey). Many of the top-performing organizations across all industries embrace the servant leadership philosophy and are enjoying the benefits.
Positive Leaders Lead with Optimism and Positivity
The challenge we face is that negativity is rampant. Gallup estimates negativity costs the economy $250-$300 billion a year and hurts the morale, performance, and productivity of teams. In contrast, a number of studies have demonstrated numerous benefits of optimism and positivity. For example, optimistic and positive people:
- Work harder, get paid more, are elected to office more often, and win at sports more regularly
- Perform better as salespeople
- More likely to see bigger picture, build relationships, and thrive in their work and careers
- Positive teams are more productive and outperform negative teams
How do we cultivate more optimism and positivity? One tip is to start your day with focusing on information that motivates and inspires you. Another tip is to carefully choose our closest friends — people that are positive, competent, and of good character. Jim Rohn advices, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” A final tip is to invest time reading from good books that will grow, develop, and inspire you. If you want to dig deeper into the positive leadership philosophy, I recommend the books on Positive Leadership written by Jon Gordon and Kim Cameron.
Positive Leaders Provide Meaning and Purpose
People want to know the "why" behind their work and feel what they do has real meaning and a higher purpose. CEO and leadership expert Frances Hesselbein wisely observed, "People want to feel that what they do makes a difference." German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized, "He who has a why can endure any how." It is up to us in leadership roles to explain why the work individuals and our teams do makes a difference. I suggest that during the Great Recession organizations eliminated teams that did not add value and kept those that did — so all remaining teams add value. And it's up to us as leaders to explain to our teams the value we add for stakeholders.
Research shows true motivation is primarily driven by meaning and purpose rather than extrinsic rewards, numbers, and goals (which do have their place, though!). For example, a study of West Point alumni showed those who had intrinsic rewards such as, "I want to serve my country and make a difference" outperformed those with extrinsic rewards like, "I want to rise in the ranks and become an officer because it's prestigious." Studies have shown that work is considered having meaning and worthwhile purpose when it possesses one or more of these key attributes:
- The work has an important positive impact on the well-being of individuals.
- The work is associated with an important virtue or a personal value.
- The work has an impact that extends beyond the immediate time frame or creates a positive ripple effect.
- The work builds supportive relationships or a sense of community in people.
It is well worth our efforts to provide meaning and purpose, as studies have shown that when people feel they are engaging in meaningful work that serves a positive purpose, significant benefits result. Benefits include reductions in stress, depression, turnover, absenteeism, dissatisfaction, and cynicism; increases in commitment, effort, engagement, empowerment, happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment.
Positive Leaders Are Trustworthy and Ethical
Multiple surveys show that people respect and want leaders that are trustworthy and ethical. The core of being ethical is doing the right thing — which often is not the easiest thing. Knowing what is "right" becomes easier when we have developed and internalized our personal value system and beliefs. Many of us look to respected "moral codes" derived from worthy sources. Values such as following the Golden Rule (treat people positively like we would like to be treated) and "loving our neighbor" can guide us in those situations where the right thing to do is not obvious.
In addition to defining relevant moral codes we ascribe to, there are a variety of "informal" ethical questions (tests) we can use, such as:
"Would I feel comfortable if my decision or action was on the front page of the newspaper?"
"What would my parents and/or my children think if they know about this action/decision?"
"Will my conscience be clear and can I sleep well at night with this action/decision?"
"What would the most respected people in my life (e.g. a spouse, parent, mentor, counselor, or pastor) do?"
Ethical organizational leaders have a positive impact on their staff. Studies show that employees who consider their leaders to be ethical are more satisfied with their jobs and perform better. Ethical leadership enhances people’s sense their work is meaningful and “good.” People are very sensitive to what is fair, just, and right. Not surprisingly, employees with ethical leaders are far less likely to engage in unethical behavior like discrimination, and this further adds to a positive work environment. The leader is important because others see them as role models whose good behavior they want to copy. There’s also human reciprocity at play: when employees are treated well by their leaders, they reciprocate by treating others well too.
Positive Leaders Deal with Poor Performance
Positive leaders are optimists and, at the same time, they are realists. Positive leaders strive for great results and high performance for themselves and their teams. At the same time, they realize poor performance happens and needs to be dealt with. Researchers from the Positive Organizational Scholarship found the need for both/and attributes throughout organizational culture. For example, we need to both allow some creativity and have strong controls in our processes where necessary. We need to be both supportive and challenging to help people grow. Bob Quinn has used the metaphor of a positive leader having one hand on her teammate’s back to push her along faster than she thought possible; the other is under her arm to break her fall if needed. Giving someone endless free passes for poor performance is not being a positive leader. In fact, it is not being a leader at all.
Positive Leaders Demonstrate Love
An increasing number of leadership experts and scholars — and accomplished leaders in organizations — are embracing and promoting the concept of "leading with love.” Talking about “love” in business makes some people squirm. Part of the problem is that out English language has only one word for love — while our friends the ancient Greeks had four, one of which is “agape” love, which is the one that is most relevant for business settings.
Agape love is not about feelings and is not emotion-based. Agape love is unconditional and is behavior-based — it’s about choosing to care and following up with actions. When we look at love in action, love works — at work. And it can be a powerful tool to help us strengthen our teams and improve the value we add to our stakeholders.
Positive Leaders Build Positive Relationships
Positive leaders value and intentionally work on building positive relationships with all people in their lives. One benefit of practicing the strategies already discussed is they contribute to helping us build better relationships. Let me leave you with a final quote from Kim Cameron: "Positive leadership is often interpreted as touchy-feely. But the evidence over the last 10 years is clear: if you implement it, performance and customer satisfaction go up. The duty of a leader is to create an organization where it is easy to practice kindness."