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.
“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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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