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Positive Leadership: Flying High Cover

written by Dave Shearon 17 January 2010

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

A leader who wants to incorporate the findings of positive psychology into his or her enterprise must “fly high cover” for that process to give it time to happen. Last week, when I taught the first of two one-day sessions for the Principals’ Leadership Academy of Nashville at Vanderbilt University, I emphasized this as a key leadership challenge. This need exists regardless of the size of the enterprise and whether the leader is at the top of the organization or a front-line leader. Leaders must protect emergent relationships, processes, and successes from attack from above at all levels.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX“Flying high cover” is a term I first encountered in stories of World War II air warfare. It denotes a mission devoted to providing protection to operations below from attacks from above. It is a critical activity for enterprise leaders focused on employing approaches from positive psychology — strengths, resilience, relationships -– to improve performance. It is easy to think that leadership approaches emphasizing strengths, resilience and relationships would be somewhat immune from attacks, but both psychological dynamics and real world experience suggest that high cover is important because such attacks will arise. Psychological dynamics that drive attacks against positive leadership include:

  • Looking Smart by Being Negative:  Teresa Amabile at Harvard showed that humans have a tendency to perceive critics as smarter than approvers when they lack sufficient information to make judgments on the content of statements.  Thus, there’s a payoff to being a critic, both inside and outside the enterprise.  Many of the “critics” of positive psychology, count on this phenomenon to generate credence for their attacks even when they misrepresent the field and the research. 
  • The Fluffy Fallacy:  Positive Psychology’s endorsement of positive emotions, hope, optimism, and high quality connections in the work place runs counter to a strong streak of disparagement of these things as “fluffy” in our culture.  Ernest Hemingway said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”  William Feather wrote, “One of the indictments of civilizations is that happiness and intelligence are so rarely found in the same person.” But perhaps Gustave Flaubert expressed this strain of thinking best: “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”
  • Wrong Focus: Regardless of the initiative a leader chooses to support, critics can always claim that the leader has the wrong focus.  In the case of a leader who chooses to lead an effort to increase positivity, optimism, resilience, or a focus on strengths, critics can simply charge that the focus should have been on something else, likely the core mission of the organization.  In education, this is the “You are not teaching reading; why spend time on _____.”  In England, educational leaders been criticized for putting resources into bringing the Penn Resilience Program into three school districts, despite research demonstrating its efficacy and the careful implementation and evaluation that they are doing.  Schools and school systems that have focused on mindfulness have gotten this form of criticism, as has the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.

Of course, the evidence weighs heavily in favor of implementing positive psychology approaches within organizations.  There is a solid basis for emphasizing strengths. See the Gallup Organization’s work publicly available in books such as Strengths-Based Leadership, StrengthsFinder 2.0, and 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

Tim Judge’s research shows that students without a positive core self-evaluation do not benefit from early successes such as high grades in high school, high standardized test scores, or even a college degree.  The data backing the usefulness of mindfulness approaches for everything from pain management to business performance for both adults and children is very powerful.  There is significant research that optimism and resilience interventions not only make people feel better, they also help individuals and enterprises perform better. 

How, then, can a leader prepare to fly high cover for the organization in order to provide time for these ideas to flow through the enterprise and promote flourishing?

  1. Make the techniques personal.  A leader needs to have some personal experience of the power of the approaches in order to be a realistic and resilient proponent.  The I-don’t-have-time-for-this-myself-but-you-should-do-it approach creates a leadership deficit that can make flying high cover very difficult.
  2. Focus on results.  Constantly emphasize the expected benefits in terms of performance.  When I talk about lawyer well-being, I focus on how positivity, resilience, mindfulness, and a focus on strengths together promote professionalism and high performance.  Schools should focus on student learning as measured by standardized tests.  The U.S. Army expects the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program to result in less disruption to its missions from personal and family crises.  Make it clear that you expect results that are important to the organization. If possible have an assessment program in place.  Educational leaders in England have the London School of Economics running an independent evaluation of the UK Resilience Programme.  The Army has developed a new assessment to measure social, emotional, spiritual, and relational fitness.
  3. Minimize openings.  Do not drag in unnecessary connotations.  For example, mindfulness approaches owe much to Buddhist thought and practice, but there are a number of ways to approach this topic, from heart-rate variability software to Ellen Langer’s work, that do not require and explicitly reference Buddhist teaching.
  4. Stay on message.  Political advisers drill this into candidates.  One part of this advice is to communicate broadly what the goals are, what the program is, and why the program will work.  The other part is not to respond to the critics.  As a general rule, let them carp from the sidelines.  They’re not in the arena trying to make things better.  You are.  Stay on task.  Stay on message.

We need positive leaders in many areas of life and at many levels.  Whether it is a small team or a huge organization, positive psychology offers approaches that can both benefit individuals and promote organizational performance.  If you are in position to provide such leadership, then, in the words of Lady Macbeth, “screw your courage to the sticking place,” initiate the effort, and be ready to fly high cover!



Amabile, Teresa M., and D. Schlesinger. “Perceptions of Negative Evaluators: Unlikeable but Smart.” Paper presented at the Meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, New York, April 1980.

Judge, T. A., & Hurst, C. (2007). Capitalizing on one’s advantages: Role of core self-evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1212-1227. Link

Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2009). Strengths-Based Leadership. New York: Gallup Press.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.

Wagner, R. & Harter, J. (2006). 12: The Elements of Great Managing. New York: Gallup Press.

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Jeff 17 January 2010 - 11:25 pm

When I read Flying High Cover it made me think. I realized that I have a negative bias against PPND articles that don’t address the enemies of PP. I say enemies because that is precisely the term for them. They are either too ignorant or too entrenched to see possibility. These people, and you know at least a few, want to shred PP. They want to discredit and destroy the work that has been rapidly building both in the US and globally in the various PP movements. They don’t offer realistic alternatives. What is most irritating is the message that PP is a foolish smiley face. What a sticky idea! So sticky that I bet the majority of the world, if they have even heard of PP, think immediately of that smiley.

I’m glad that PP has enemies. That means that the scientist-practitioners & coaches are making an impact and shaking things up. The mudslinging papparazzi who lump PP with New Age movements are the ones that bother me the most. Other annoyances are the “ITS BEEN DONE A THOUSAND YEARS AGO” crowd. Maybe the ideas were there, but they weren’t tested. Obviously the techniques were not done all that well. They didn’t stick. They don’t even bother to investigate their opinions. Their muck sticks. Its good gossip.

I asked the question “why is PP so threatening?” in the comments a few days back. A follow-up is “how can PP become more media saavy and less of a punching bag”. Senia’s PBS work is a great leap forward. What else can be done?

WJ 18 January 2010 - 4:53 am

Dave – I don’t think there is compelling evidence supporting postive psych in organisations. And again the research in education is far from equivocal. At best it suggests that it might be useful.

The work in the military is a huge experiment – there is no research that I am aware of, that supports the PRP in adult populations – yet oalone the military. Of course I am prepared to eat humble pie if you can provide the evidence.

Dave Shearon 18 January 2010 - 9:03 am

Jeff, I hadn’t applied the concept of “sticky” ideas to the arguments made by those who get noticed through trashing PP. Your suggestion really strikes a chord with me — I want to think about it more.

I would go on to say that I think many of these folks do not limit their approach to PP; they are “keepers of the nightmare” (a Terrance Deal term, I think) for any idea or initiative that suggests things might could be better. We could go into a lot of guessing and theorizing about why folks do this, but, from a leadership standpoint, I suggest the need to just accept the fact that they are out there and to have a plan in place. Really in this article, I’m thinking more of those outside the organization. For schools, think Chamber of Commerce folks, citizen critics, school board members, other politicians, etc. I’d suggest a leader wants to engage these folks in advance and win as many as possible to whatever approach he or she is implementing, but there’ll still be the need to just absorb the hits from the others, protect the folks down below, and keep flying.

Dave Shearon 18 January 2010 - 9:28 am

Wayne, the evidence to me seems quite solid that individuals, through application of attention and energy, can
(1)increase the extent to which they experience positive emotions,
(2)increase mindfulness, and
(3)think optimistically (from an attributional standpoint), hopefully (Snyder), from a growth mindset (Dweck), and with an oritentation toward strengths (VIA and Gallup). Further, the research supports a conclusion that by making such changes, a significant percentage of individuals in an organization will experience improved life outcomes including more success at work. Further it appears that these now happier, more successful individuals will alter their interactions with others in ways that will lead to a “contagion” effect that will support improved performance throughout the organization

Wayne, you know a great deal about the research, including for example, the attributional style research/implementation work with professional sports teams and insurance companies. Gallup’s work on strengths within organizations. Work in schools with Snyder’s Hope Theory or Dweck’s “Mindsets” approach. As for the military, there actually is at least one study of resilience training and its impact on performance in basic training and retention beyond. It was done by the Navy. Don’t have the reference, but I will get it for you.

So, given your knowledge and experience, what’s your judgment about what a leader should do? Here’s a hypothetical. You have been appointed superintendent of the largest public school system in Australia. I assume you would have some approaches to helping that organization improve its performance that would be informed by both your best understanding of research and your professional judgment of the implications of that research for organizational change and improved chances for success. What would you do?

WJ 18 January 2010 - 3:04 pm

Dave – I’m not being contrary here – I’m just saying that the evidence isn’t available. It’s often extrapolated from small studies of psychology undergraduates. Similarly the Gallup research promotes a commercial product – and we all know that can be biased – just think drug companies.

What would I do if I were in a school – not sure as I haven’t looked closely at the research.

I work in organisations and not sure if this applies to schools. I do know that it seems to be about attracting and retaining good teachers – something private schools like Geelong Grammar manage to do – why because they are paid more and working with a less challenging more motivated cohort of kids.

In organisations I focus on teaching mindfulness using my Resilience Builder software. When they have learnt to take the foot of the accelerator, I then use a personality profile to assist people to understand where they might get more engament in their lives – I use a personality profile as opposed to the VIA – it’s far more useful.

Do I have any research supporting what I do? It’s all based on research but I have no long term organisation specific studies. Can’t afford them. I compensate by offering a moneyback guarantee which to date no one has taken up.

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 20 January 2010 - 10:12 am

Dave, you’re good! You’re real good!

wj 21 January 2010 - 3:28 am

Dave, I has a look at the judge study – they suggest that positive self concept is a personality trait. This suggests it can’t be learnt.

What do you think?

By the way I don’t think there is compelling research supporting mindfulness either in business either. It’s an idea that has potential – and that’s what I always say to my clients.

This tendancy to extrapolate/exaggerate the benefits of PP is the enemy within.


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