When I reflect on all that I learned last year in the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP), it sometimes makes my head spin. I’m reminded of the notion of clarity that Buckingham describes in his book The One Thing You Need to Know (2005). I’m taking Buckingham’s advice and am placing less value on all that I can remember and instead have consciously chosen to focus on those few things I must never forget.
One way to look at leadership is through a three-part frame: What leaders must Do, Know and Be. At the intersection of these three components, the shaded area, is excellence. It’s where action, feeling and thinking are aligned and integrated into a consistent whole.
There are countless leadership models that purport all kinds of competencies and qualities that are essential to leadership. Most models focus on what leaders must be able to do and know. Only in the last decade or so has the field of leadership development begun examining who leaders need to be. From my study of Positive Psychology I have distilled six things that I must never forget. My hope is other leaders will find them helpful, too.
What Leaders must DO
I see two essential ingredients to DOING: Leaders build relationships and create a shared vision for a better future.
- Build Relationships: Leaders build relationships and ultimately trust by authentically connecting with people, being fully present, and making others feel good about themselves. From the study of Positive Psychology we know positive emotions produce feelings of self-efficacy. Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory and Dutton’s work on high quality connections are evidence for the importance of building relationships. University of Southern California’s professor Warren Bennis sums up the importance of building relationships: “If you think about it, people love others not for who they are, but for how they make us feel. We willingly follow for much the same reason. It makes us feel good to do so.”
- Create a Shared Vision: Leadership is about helping people find a shared vision or purpose that not only creates a better future, but also provides meaning in their work. A leader must appeal to a very basic human fear – of the unknown – by transforming confidence in the future. What better way to assuage people’s fears than by defining the future? To quote University of Nebraska professor Bruce Avolio, “Leaders bring the future to the present.” Creating a shared vision, using an Appreciative Inquiry approach, is one way to engage people at all levels of an organization. Buy-in to the vision becomes moot because people have been involved from the start in helping to shape it. Positive Psychology has much to contribute here, including Bandura’s work on visualizing success, and Pratt and Ashforth’s work on meaningfulness in and at work. Meaningful work is central to positive organizations.
What Leaders must KNOW
Leaders must know that higher productivity and innovation, essential to maintaining one’s competitive advantage, can only be achieved through the alignment of strengths and requires leadership at all levels in an organization.
- Alignment of Strengths: Most organizations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimizing weaknesses or closing gaps. This is not how excellence and competitive advantage are built. Positive Psychology has much empirical evidence to support a strength-based leadership approach. We’ve learned if you can carve out roles that draw upon your strengths everyday, you will be more productive, fulfilled, and successful. Assessment tools, like Gallup’s StrengthsFinder and Seligman/Peterson’s VIA Signature Strengths, can help a leader identify, understand, and leverage her strengths. Only then can a leader truly appreciate and leverage the strengths of others.
- Leaders At All Levels: I believe everyone has the potential to be a leader. I’m reminded of a quote from Ralph Nader: “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” Positive Psychology has taught us that by discovering one’s natural talents or strengths we can apply these gifts in our life and in service of others. Mike Morrison, Dean of Toyota University, in his book Leading Through Meaning, describes how today’s competitive realities require leadership at all levels, not merely reserving leadership to a few at the top.
What Leaders must BE
Leadership is truly a way of being. If you have the ingredients in the first two domains, but ignore the being domain, I do not believe you can be an effective leader. I see two essential ingredients to being: Leadership is about being authentic and being optimistic of the future.
- Authentic: Who we are being as leaders begins with “knowing thyself”. The fields of Positive Psychology and Organizational Development offer a number of assessment tools to assist in this discovery. I believe leadership starts from the inside and goes outward and authenticity is the fundamental stating point of Leadership. Authenticity is discovered and highlighted through ongoing feedback, reflection, and action. This is where an executive coach can add the most value. If a leader wants to change an organization I believe she must start by changing herself. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you seek in the world.”
- Optimistic: Leadership is about inspiring hope for a better future. Positive Psychology has much to offer around hope theory and optimism. While some leaders are blessed with a dispositional optimistic style, others can learn “to be” more optimistic by knowing their explanatory style and changing their behavior through such techniques as disputing, reframing, and active-constructive responding. Researchers have found that optimistic people are more successful, healthier, and happier. Imagine applying this concept now to organizations. Is there a contagion effect when the leader is optimistic? What role does optimism play in realizing a shared vision? I believe optimism is essential to being an effective leader and creating a shared vision. Without it, there is no hope, no reason to stretch, and no belief that an organization can rally to achieve its vision.
Build Relationships, Create a Shared Vision, Alignment of Strengths, Leaders at all Levels, Authentic, and Optimistic – these are the elements of leadership that I shall never forget.
Buckingham, M. (2005). The One Thing You Need to Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success. New York, NY: Free Press.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Morrison, M. (2003). Leading Through Meaning. Torrance, CA: University of Toyota.
Pratt, M. & Ashford, B. (2003). In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & Quinn, R. (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 309-327. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.