Home All Positivity: The Leadership Tipping Point

Positivity: The Leadership Tipping Point

written by Elaine O'Brien 31 March 2010

Elaine O'Brien, PhD, MAPP '08, is a positive psychology, fitness leadership, positive health promotion, movement science, aging, and well-being speaker, author, trainer, thought leader, people/project manager, educator, and consultant. Elaine creates programs promoting proactive positive health/fitness, and optimal performance. Elaine presents internationally and online. She advances health, fitness, and flourishing by inspiring people to move more and to find both enjoyment and meaning in motion via PEP: Positive Exercise Practices. Elaine's website.  Full bio. Elaine's articles are here.

“We have Stone Age Emotions, Medieval Institutions, and Godlike Technology.”
–E. O. Wilson

Leadership tipping point

Leadership tipping point

The inaugural conference on Positive Psychology and Leadership was held March 19, 2010 at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax Virginia.

The Center for Consciousness and Transformation (CCT) sponsored this outstanding event. Many thanks to the welcoming event team that included members of MasonLEADS! and the GMU Student Health Services.

Leadership with a Small ‘l’
The conference goals included building a global community to support effective, meaningful change on individual, community, and society levels. Meaningful change needs leadership, and each of us can make a positive difference, no matter what our position. That’s called leadership with a small “l”.

Relationship Booster Shot

Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson

In the opening keynote (very similar to this presentation), Dr. Barbara Fredrickson explored the idea of a positivity tipping point. After a review of the Broaden and Build theory, she shared data from as yet unpublished research about ways that positivity transforms relationships. A new study led by Dr. Sarah Algoe looks at the impact of expressing gratitude on relationships. In the process, the researchers observed that gratitude is expressed in very different ways between couples. High-quality expressions show that “my partner really understands me.” A husband thanked his wife for bringing him a treat, commenting that “my partner thinks about me during the day.” In contrast, a low quality expression focuses on the gift and the receiver, rather than the giver. For example, a woman bought her husband a guitar. In his thanks, he focused on how cool the guitar was and how nice it will be for him to play it. This expression felt “more flat” because the focus is on the guitar and the experience of playing the guitar, and not on appreciation of the giver.


Dr. Fredrickson talked about how showing gratitude, thoughtfulness, and kindness to others can bring back the “new car smell” of relationships. She suggested five ways to create a mindset of positivity:

  1. Be Open
  2. Be Appreciative
  3. Be Curious
  4. Be Kind
  5. Be Real – no false pretenses of positivity

Positive Leadership Strategies

Kim Cameron

Kim Cameron

After commenting that “organizations tend to exist to eliminate deviance,” Dr. Kim Cameron discussed the importance of positive deviance, departing from the norm in a positive direction. He described the heliotropic effect of positive leadership. “All living systems go toward the light, and are attracted to that which is life-giving and repelled by what is life-taking.”


Fostering compassionate responses and gratitude can build a positive climate. CEOs who sent thank you cards to employees increased performance and reduced staff turnover. As illustrated in a story of two airlines, the airline organizations that focused on compassion toward employees after 9/11 were the ones that prevailed. Gratitude changes heart rhythms in a positive way.

Engagement, satisfaction, and family time are better for people who have positive energy at work. “The prescription for leaders is to unleash the heliotropic effect. An energizer of others tends to be a higher performer, Typhoid Mary in reverse.”

What Leaders Need to Know

Dr. James Harter and Dr. Shane Lopez, both from Gallup, gave an inspired, personal, and education-focused panel presentation on what leaders need to know about strengths, hope, engagement, and well-being.

Psychological Flexibility and Appreciative Intelligence

In a panel moderated by Dr. Lois Teitrick, Dr. Todd Kashdan and Dr. Tojo Thatchenkery talked about qualities that characterize extraordinary leaders. According to Kashdan, they are psychologically flexible and open to new experiences. According to Thatchenkery, they also have the ability to see positive potential and act on it, a quality he called Appreciative Intelligence (AI). In response to an audience question about the other AI, Dr. Thatchenkery described Appreciative Inquiry as a process that makes extensive use of the Appreciative Intelligence quality.

Muhammad Yunus

Nobel-Prize Winner, Muhammad Yunus

Dr. Thatchenkery gave several examples of leaders who use appreciative intelligence to think of new ways to approach the world. For example, Muhammad Yunus started by appreciating the commercial abilities latent in people in great need and went on to start Grameen Bank to give them microcredit to start businesses, thereby improving their lives and their communities. According to Yunus, “Development from below also serves to advance democracy.”


Dr. Kashdan defined Psychological Flexibility as “an amazing human capacity to change to situational demands.” He talked about balancing competing desires and needs, and moving toward our valued aims. He discussed the importance of play and how play disappears when we move from childhood to adulthood. He mentioned the companies 3M, Apple, and Google as exemplars of creativity building at work. He also said, “If you are not failing at things, you are not doing creative tasks.” He challenged us to “Go where it is uncomfortable, and see if you can find innovation and energy,” and “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.”

What Do We Need in Our Leaders?

World Cafe in Process

World Cafe in Process

Bill Robertson, chair of the Center for Consciousness and Transformation advisory board and Fran Nurthen from the Mason Institute for Leadership Excellence used the World Cafe model to generate a conversation around desired qualities in leaders. Participants at round tables of 8-10 people reflected on the question, “What are strengths and characteristics leaders need to address society’s challenges, today and tomorrow?” The diverse attendees brainstormed at their tables and the table note taker listed all ideas.


After about 10-15 minutes, the note takers remained at the table and participants were asked to shift to a new table. At the second table meeting, the goal was to review the big list left behind by the earlier table group and identify an ordered list of the 3 most important characteristics of leaders we need.

Fran Nurthen

Fran Nurthen Reporting

After all results were tallied, Bill and Fran reported that 260 participants had identified 44 different characteristics of leadership, including being a positive energizer, compassionate, future-minded, ethical, purpose-centered, and inspirational. Bill and Fran also reported that 17 different qualities of leadership were rated #1 by different tables. The top 3 most important characteristics of a leader were:

  1. Integrity
  2. Visionary
  3. Positive Communicator

The next Mason Institute for Leadership Excellence program, October 18 to 21, 2010 in Fairfax, Virginia, will focus on building leadership around talents and strengths, leading with influence and integrity, and change.

The event experience was a leadership tipping point; it broadened and built our leadership repertoire and inspired us to realize new insights about the importance of positive practices and excellent leadership in the world.




Algoe, S., Gable, S. & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217 – 233.

Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler. (Originally posted as edition 1; updated later)

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press. Now out in paperback.

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.

Thatchenkery, T. (2006). Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn San Francisco: Berrett Kohler.

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

Tipping point image from Leadership and Positive Psychology Conference Web site
Barbara Fredrickson photo by Jeff Chappell
Kim Cameron from University of Michigan Business School
Muhammad Yunus from Wikipedia article
World Cafe in Progress and Fran Nurthen Reporting both by Evan Cantwell, George Mason University


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Sherri Fisher 31 March 2010 - 3:38 pm

I really enjoyed hearing about this conference. What a star-studded cast, and great to hear that there are more leadership conferences in the series. 🙂

Elaine O'Brien 31 March 2010 - 4:23 pm

Dear Sherri,
Thanks for writing. Yes, there is a great connection and hope around the positive intersection between Positive Psychology and Leadership. The Center for Consciousness and Transformation at George Mason University did a stellar job with their inaugural event. Here you can find other planned events: http://cct.gmu.edu/events/index.html
Happy Spring!
PS Sherri, thanks for all your contributions to the emerging field of Positive Psychology! You rock.

WJ 1 April 2010 - 3:07 am

Elaine, By the way gratitude isn’t the only thing that changes heart rhythms – so does exercise, slow breathing and mindfulness.

The rhythms they refer to are called Heart rate Variability and are controlled by the calming response.

See the article I wrote at https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/wayne-jencke/200810071062

Suzie Pileggi 1 April 2010 - 12:48 pm


Great article! You provided an excellent overview of the conference — I felt like I was there in

Thank you for summarizing the salient points of the inaugural conference on “Positive Psychology and Leadership.” It sounds like it was a successful event and one of just many yet to come!

With gratitude,

Elaine O'Brien 1 April 2010 - 4:46 pm

Dear Suzie,
Thanks for writing and for your kind comments. Yes, the Center for Consciousness and Transformation did a great job hosting this wonderful event, with more to follow-You can click the link above and then go to “Events.”
The intersection of Leadership and Positive Psychology is a hot topic; at last Saturday’s NASP, Sport’s Psychology conference at Temple University, definitions around “optimal leadership,” were discussed around sport and performance.
Cheers to you,

Elaine O'Brien 1 April 2010 - 4:56 pm

Cheers WJ,

I ready your wonderful article at https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/wayne-jencke/200810071062
Thanks for that brilliant PPND contribution! I have bookmarked your article. Just today I was talking with my adult Dance/Exercise students about the link between positive emotions and health. Thanks for the science behind that and the valuable information about HRV, biofeedback applications, the software capabilities and the importance of a balanced autonomic nervous system. This is exciting research.
I’m looking forward to more research around Positive Emotions, HRV and exercise, and of course, meditation.

Thanks for writing,

Nicholas Ritchey 1 April 2010 - 6:13 pm

Hi Elaine,

Thank you for helping me keep-up with the recent happenings and research in the world of positive psychology.

I love your articles 😀


Elaine O'Brien 1 April 2010 - 7:09 pm

Dear Nick,

Thanks for your encouraging note. Sending you and Eunju warmest wishes in Korea.

Fondest regards,

Amanda Horne 6 April 2010 - 3:46 am

Elaine, I really enjoyed reading your article.

I hope there are more conferences like this.

When reading your comments about Barbara Fredrickson and high quality expressions, this sounds remarkably similar to Active Constructive Responding.

You comments about the five ways to build positivity closely align with the strengths, such as VIA strengths, and demonstrates how using any strengths gives us a boost, not just to our positivity but to our satisfaction and fulfillment.


Elaine O'Brien 6 April 2010 - 2:22 pm

Dear Amanda,

Thanks for your comment; how great to hear from you! Yes, I’d also like to see more conferences around positive psychology/behavioral economics/social science, and leadership. The Center for Consciousness and Transformation (CSI), New Century College, GMU, presented an excellent, welcoming event. Each individual speaker made compelling points about positivity, well-being across domains, strengths, and leadership. Bill Robertson and Fran Nurthen’s lively group round tables naming leadership qualities revealed thoughtful, productive outcomes about what characteristics we are looking for in our leaders.

My comments about Barbara Fredrickson and high quality expressions, like Active Constructive Responding (ACR), offer us a chance to be positive energizers. These models present optimistic, enriched, thoughtful ways of communicating with others, building resources. I love these pieces of positive psychology research and application. They are nurturing, can be learned, taught, and make a giant difference in how we realize our lives, especially with others.

Vehicles for applying positive strengths like the CCT, VIA (Character Strengths and Virtues), Strengths Finder, CAPP’s Realise2, and models like IDEA Health and Fitness Association’s Code of Ethics, can help improve the quality of our lives, our communities, and our society.

Wishing you well and Happy Spring,


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