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Positive leadership can help you elevate people and performance to accomplish your mission. 

Positive leadership is a concept that is receiving more attention as people strive to to work together for good in these challenging times.  Positive leadership certainly sounds like a good thing, and if it works we should probably use it.  But like so many leadership concepts, it is hard to find one standard definition or set of practices that we might adopt.  Here we offer some guidance for using positive leadership in daily practice.

What is positive leadership?

There is no single, standard definition of positive leadership.  As a working definition, you might think of positive leadership as a set of strategies for elevating people and performance in service of a mission.  Positive leaders elevate people by creating a culture and support system that helps individuals contribute, learn, grow, and be their best.  Positive leaders elevate performance by equipping people with direction and supports to accomplish the mission of the program, service, or organization. The result is a positive organization where people thrive as they create positive impact.

What is the evidence for positive leadership?

The evidence for positive leadership comes from research on individual and organizational performance.  Research on individual performance indicates that people tend to do their best in positive work environments where they feel respected, supported, surrounded by positive values, and engaged in working for positive results.  Research on organizations indicates that positive leadership practices can elevate organizational performance as indicated by various measures of goal achievement, productivity, profit, and employee engagement.  This connection between supportive work environments and better performance is essential for understanding the power of positive leadership.

Can positive leadership help during difficult times?

Yes, because positive leadership deals with difficult times in positive ways.  For individuals, positive leadership can help people feel connected and supported during times of personal or professional difficulty. For organizations, positive leadership can help people manage through difficult times, even during budget cuts, reorganizations, downsizing, and shutdowns.  This is not to propose that positive leadership is a magical solution to the very real stress and pain that can be caused in workplace disruption.  But positive leadership, rightly practiced, can help people manage the situation with dignity, respect, and resilience.

How can we practice positive leadership?

People practice positive leadership in all kinds of ways, many of which are described throughout this Elevation learning community.  Chances are, you are already practicing elements of positive leadership, and the opportunity lies in getting better at what you already striving to do.  Going forward, it may help to have a set of practical aims for positive leadership.  Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan Center on Positive Organizations has identified four strategies to consider:

  • Create positive meaning. Help people understand how their work contributes to the mission and goals of the organization.  This connection between people and purpose is essential for individual and team motivation.
  • Practice positive communication.    Communicate in supportive ways, not only about achievements and opportunities, but also about challenges, problems, and changes.  Even difficult issues can be addressed using neutral and descriptive language aimed at learning and problem solving rather than negativity and blame.
  • Foster positive relationships.  Foster positive relationships based on trust and authentic interest in the professional development of team members.    Also notice people with positive energy, and create connections to help them energize the organization.
  • Cultivate a positive climate.  Develop a positive climate by creating positive experiences and supporting a culture of positive values and norms.  Celebrate values and victories.  Also manage problems and challenges in ways that foster trust, respect, dignity, and resilience.

These strategies are backed by research, and they can be implemented using a broad range of leadership practices.  Many of these practices are described in Dr. Cameron’s book Practicing Positive Leadership, and more can be found in the Elevation Learning Streams on Leadership, Management, Teamwork, and Key Skills.

Some Key Skills for Positive Leadership

These key skills in particular can strengthen your personal toolkit for positive leadership:

Summary Points

In summary, positive leadership is about elevating people and performance in support of the mission.  It is grounded in research, and it can be implemented in practical ways.   As a starting point, work to create positive meaning, positive communication, positive relationships, and a positive climate.  Also teach and spread these strategies across the organization.  You will see the results in the culture and performance of your team as people work together to create positive impact.

Further Reading