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So What Should Leaders DO?

written by Emma Judge 16 March 2007

Emma Judge, MAPP, is the founder of Positive Organizations, applying the principles of Positive Psychology to the world of work through coaching, leadership development and links with academia. Full bio.

Emma's articles are here.

I was talking recently to the head of Executive Education at a business school here in the UK about Positive Psychology. It was going well, I thought – and then he asked me one of those beautifully simple, yet outrageously complex questions, “So what does this all mean a leader should do differently?” Not how should they be different in themselves, or how should they be coached differently – but what should they actually DO?

If I remember rightly I came up with a passable answer but as I drove home that evening it was what I didn’t say that came to mind (as it so often does!) – and I think I missed out one important element.

Psychological Capital by Luthans, Youssef and Avolio suggests that an individual, or even an organization, can gain competitive advantage through the attainment and growth of efficacy, hope, optimism and resiliency. My own article in January talked about the positive psychology constructs which might contribute to employee engagement and thus to productivity.

So what is one of the things a leader should do?

Fair Weather

Assess and measure positive constructs within themselves and within their organization – and respond accordingly. If the evidence is pointing towards a relationship between these characteristics of our psychological make-up and thriving, sustainable performance or engagement – wouldn’t you as a leader want to how much of them you’ve got? For some leaders it may be enough to develop their own “barometer”- an awareness and appreciation of how these constructs are faring within their own organization. For others it might mean hard measurement. Many “people measures” that we use measure the consequences of a lack of these positive elements such as turnover, and absenteeism or stress. Others measure something closer to the output required such as productivity or employee engagement.

The analogy for me is one of production. If you’re making Potato Chips (something I know a little about) you don’t wait until they are “in the bag” and leave it to the consumer to tell you there’s a problem. To make the best possible Potato Chip you measure each component of the manufacturing process so that you can spot problems early – the raw ingredients, the peeling, slicing, frying, flavoring, and packaging. If leaders are to make flourishing, engaged organizations a reality, they must actively manage the hope, resilience, efficacy, strengths orientation, levels of meaning and social connections within their organizations in the same way they do quality, safety and costs. They then stand a better chance of creating the kind of sustainable high performance that is good for all.


Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2006). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.

Fair weather courtesy of Toastwife

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Jeff Dustin 16 March 2007 - 12:43 am


Have you read the book Results Based Leadership?

The key take-home point from the book is that it is the bottom line results, however your organization & its stakeholders define success that really counts. The idea is reflected in words like a Balanced Scorecard or winner of the Baldridge Award for excellence.

I believe that resilience and a host of positive psychological processes can lead to powerful desired results, but they don’t have to necessarily. I can envision a very happy employee who isn’t aligned with the company and so is unproductive. So there needs to be some kind of focusing mechanism, some way of concentrating this happiness into productivity and measurable end results and I suspect that is the essential question here.

How do we as organization members and leaders make key changes to become more productive as determined by successful collective results?

Emma Judge 16 March 2007 - 2:13 am

Hi Jeff,

I don’t disagree with you or Ulrich – bottom line results are the ultimate goal. The question to me is what is going to help you get there ? And what do you measure and work to increase along the way to tell you if you are going to get the results you need ths quarter and (perhaps more importantly) over the longer term.

The focusing mechanism is also essential for many of these ideas like meaning and a strengths based approach – that mechanism is mainly, I believe, through leadership. I’m not so sure that the concepts in Psychological Capital need to be directly focused towards a specific goal – the idea that people are hopeful, resilient, optimistic and believe in their own efficacy is more about an underlying ‘strength’ in an organisation – making people more capable of delivering sustainable results. You then come back to the more ‘mainstream’ ideas about how good organizations deliver results – an abundance of these positive constructs just gives them so much more to work with.

Finally, I agree that the goal isn’t ‘happy’ employees, but it may be ’employees happy in their work’. If someone finds their work meaningful, is playing to their strengths in the actual tasks they spend their time doing and their time at work is one of positive experiences it’s very hard to imagine that they aren’t going to be productive – it’s not enough, but it’s a good place to start !

Jeff Dustin 16 March 2007 - 4:49 am

Hi Emma,

I really enjoyed your response. The ambiguous term happy is such a frustrating and funny construct. I think to clarify what I meant, I’ll use the word Pleasant. You can have very Pleased employees that lack Meaning in their work.

In my direct experience in the drug war, I found the whole operation Meaningless. I was Pleased with some of my living conditions but Disengaged. I believe if my psychologyical capital was focused in the sense that I believed strongly in the mission, then of course I would have produced outstanding results.

I think part of what makes the question “So what do we do?” so difficult is that context can strongly influence the answer. Leadership is a term much like Happiness. It is abstract. Bringing it down to the local level, as in leadership of the Prebyterian Church in East Overshoe, Missouri, or leadership of the White House by the President clarifies the discussion and makes an answer more meaningful and helpful.

Is a teacher’s leadership the same as a coach, therapist, general, or businessperson? I think probably there are some similarities and many unique constructs to each role.

Emma Judge 16 March 2007 - 7:02 am

Absolutely ! I think there are many, many things that make for good leaders – and not all are needed by all in all situations. In fact authenticity and adherance to a set of meaningful, personal values are probably the true universal criteria (for another day !).

Whilst reflecting on your earlier response I also realized that the role of leadership is emerging as a ‘richer’ view of what organizations are there to do also emerges. I believe that some organizations are beginning to see sustainable improvements to the bottom line going hand in hand with social responsibility, environmental accountability and having a positive impact on people’s working lives – not just from a moral or ethical perspectivem but because it’s a necessary condition for a thriving, successful, long-term business model. So yes, the focus on the bottom line is critical AND so increasingly so are some of these other measures of success.

Jeff Dustin 16 March 2007 - 10:17 am

I like that businesses are being forced to adapt to more humane principles. That is real progress. I look forward to reading more of your columns.

Mimi 16 March 2007 - 7:36 pm

Emma and Jeff,

Thought you might find this article interesting:


Kathryn Britton 17 March 2007 - 8:15 am

Jeff and Emma,

What I’m finding to be the best talking point for business managers is “energy.” Energy is what makes productivity so elastic. It’s a good term because management can see that energy can’t be mandated. They can tell employees that they are under 7-day mandatory over-time without perceiving how absurd it is. They can’t imagine saying, “Be more energetic!” in the same commanding way.

I like Loehr & Schwartz’s statement that companies should manage energy, not time, making sure that periods of intense energy are matched with periods of recovery and recreation. One of my clients likens it to lifting weights — if you lift them every day, your muscles don’t grow because they don’t have a chance to respond to the stress of the earlier exercise. She has seen this in her fellow participants in strength training.

In my experience, people who believe in what they are doing, see goals as being within their reach, and have some control over how they reach them accomplish much more in less time than the same people working without these qualities.


Emma Judge 17 March 2007 - 8:28 am

I think you are right Kathryn – focused energy is the ideal outcome and many of the things we are talking about here are ways of creating a context and environment from which individual’s can gain energy. If leaders focus on those environments – making it more likely that people will feel excitied about their goals, attribute meaning to what they do, establish real friendships, experience hope and optimism, have the skils, experiences and role models to be good at what they – then one could imagine that energy is a likely outcome- but not one that you can increase directly.

Christine Duvivier 17 March 2007 - 1:02 pm

Hi Emma,

Great article. I loved your analogy to production — and the steps along the way that ensure the right outcome. The energy idea Kathryn raises is so important… and so much of what is done in organizations actually zaps energy rather than heightening it!

Thanks for raising these issues,

Jeff Dustin 17 March 2007 - 5:21 pm


You always come up with these great pearls of wisdom! Yeah, Energy is the ticket. I have put in a few work weeks of around 84 hours +/- during my military service and I can attest that I wasn’t very productive. The fact is no matter how gung ho you are, fatigue makes lazy buggers of us all. We had some very driven individuals but by the end of a 12 hour midnight shift, they were pretty useless. Clearly there are limits to the human body’s stress response.

I know that my attention plummeted and I wonder how fighter pilots whose lives depend upon precise and accurate thinking and responding can push themselves to exhaustion.

Kicking around these ideas with you guys is very rewarding.

Jeff Dustin 17 March 2007 - 5:43 pm


I am optimistic about increasing workplace energy. Here are some interventions with promise. Siesta rooms, scheduling that respects Hans Selye’s stress curve, availability of fresh drinking water and cups to drink it, regular breaks, flextime sheduling, listening and implementing employee input when practical so they have some sense of control and feel like stakeholders. Available whole foods in a little cafeteria. Even having treadmill desks http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2005-06-07-office-fit_x.htm?csp=34
(I love this link) and a culture that strongly supports the use of them. Flow inspired design features in the physical environment.

Hey, even pay above minimum wage would be a plus. If you aren’t working two jobs you probably have a shot at getting a decent night’s sleep. Who was it that said that there are hygiene factors and that if you remove impediments to employee satisfaction, at least you aren’t dragging them down. I’ve experienced both scenarios, a rigid bureaucracy and a flexible friendly environment and the latter was superior for my energy and performance.

So there are practical, implementable and replicable possibilities.

Margaret 18 March 2007 - 7:25 am

Emma,I love reading your PP & leadership articles & the discussions they prompt. Another thing I think leaders need to DO is to be sure employees’ jobs (and their own!)align with their strengths & the organization’s mission/goals, and then move out of the way and let them soar! Can’t wait for the authenticity & values article. Warm regards, Margaret

Kathryn Britton 21 March 2007 - 12:11 pm

Here’s an interesting article related to our discussion of energy management:

‘Work Less!’ Global Companies Tell Top Managers

A Harvard Business Review study found that half of male executives and 80% of female execs working 60 hours a week or more said they would not be able to keep it up for more than a year.

By Reuters

March 20, 2007 08:32 AM


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