Home All Introducing Social-Emotional Leadership – A Framework for Institutional Flourishing

Introducing Social-Emotional Leadership – A Framework for Institutional Flourishing

written by John Yeager 11 August 2008

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

Louis J. Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP is a consultant to schools in the area of character education. He has an intriguing perspective on making leadership come alive in organizations. I wanted him to share some of his thoughts on PPND this month. JY

Louis Alloro

Louis Alloro

“Luckily, I was busy working for most of the summer, because it wasn’t until yesterday that I faced what many of us dread the most about the season: buying a bathing suit. Having been a fat kid, I am especially sensitive to my weight, and still, today feel like I ride the line between fit and not. But I suspect many people can relate to a similar internal struggle to find balance, which Aristotle (1994/350) interestingly defines as virtue: the mean between the extremes.

When I entered the men’s store on Eighth Avenue to buy the bathing suit, I saw the same-old situation in a newer light—in terms of Social-Emotional Leadership. As the sales guy came over to help, he asked my waist size and I immediately felt the doom and with no real reason (I know I am in good shape now). Why did I go to a dreadful place? It didn’t help that I had a “friend” there who, in trying to be funny, belted, “He’s a size forty-six, sir” with a cackle and smirk. This is not what I needed.

I needed a Social-Emotional Leader, a good friend to help me challenge the beliefs in my head, not enable them. I needed someone there who would affirm that I am beautiful, creative, resourceful, and whole (Whitworth et al., 2007). We all need Social-Emotional Leaders because they tell us what we need to hear when we need to hear it. As such, sometimes they are our cheerleaders, other times our truth-tellers and always our possibility-generators.

Social-Emotional Leaders help us build our strengths, with the hope that doing so may self-correct some of our weaknesses, or create the space to deal with the deficit more functionally. They help us see more clearly, they help us find balance and virtue, and ultimately, they help us feel good.

Social-Emotional Leadership as a Call-to-Action

For my graduate work in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program (Alloro, in press), I am developing a model of Social-Emotional Leadership as a meta-framework or call-to-action, by bridging three fields:

  • education—teaching and learning (e.g., Freire, 1998)
  • positive psychology—learning about feeling good (e.g., Peterson & Seligman, 2004)
  • social construction—the idea that reality is whatever we create (e.g., Gergen, 1999)

What would a system of coaching (education) look like where we all took action to help contribute to the well-being of the other (positive psychology)—helping each other construct more positive social-cultural realities (social construction)? Imagine what our families, schools, communities, and workplaces might look like with systems of Social-Emotional Leadership in place.

Social-Emotional Leadership provides a system of accountability that diminishes hypocrisies and increases levels of authenticity and integrity. It is a way of being in which we begin helping each other set goals that lead to positive growth and well-being. Becoming our better selves makes the groups we comprise stronger. Therefore, Social-Emotional Leadership can ultimately lead to real and sustainable institutional and even societal flourishing, an under-developed area of our discipline (Gable & Haidt, 2005; Peterson et al., 2008).

The strengths-based and future-oriented language from positive psychology (e.g., Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Reivich & Gillham, 2008) can help us sustain generative conversations about what we need, want, and value – conversations Social-Emotional Leaders invite people into. The dialogues are “designed to bring out the best in people so that they can imagine a preferred future together that is more hopeful, boundless, and inherently good” (Cooperrider et al., 2008).

Social-Emotional Leadership is a way of life in which coaching becomes a metaphor for living. The truth is that we all have internal radio stations that run in our heads—ones that might be saying, “The sales guy thinks you’re fat, too.” It’s time to challenge our disserving belief systems—they affect our actions in the world.

Social-Emotional Leadership rests on the idea that positive cultural change is possible, but must emerge from within primary networks, like families, schools, businesses, even book clubs—any group of people with traditions or customs. Social-Emotional Leadership is the call-to-action for people in these preexisting relationships to shake the foundations of complacency and to use creative licenses to transform and grow in positive directions—“a moving beyond alienated coexistence to a more promising way of going on together” (Gergen, 1999, p. 148). This requires we look at habit, tradition, and even language and consider the possibilities of creating anew.

Inevitable Change

Social-Emotional Leaders believe that change is not only possible; it is inevitable, and shaped by our own designs. Social-Emotional Leaders do not have all the answers—just the questions, the vision, and some of the tools that might lead the network in a positive direction. It is not a hierarchy (Robertson, 2008); we all need Social-Emotional Leaders and we all can serve in this capacity for others. Many people are already operating in this state (probably many of you interested in Positive Psychology News Daily!), some people are beginning to see the need to, and many others still need to be leveraged.

Social-Emotional Leadership can be a framework for any institution or organization interested in its own flourishing. Social-Emotional Leadership could also serve as a sustainable and ecological character education program. Schools could serve as the gateway for the dissemination of the tools and knowledge coming from positive psychology and into the homes it supports.

If we are truly at an inflection point in our evolution (Seligman, 2008), now is the time to build the collective hope, efficacy, and determination necessary for positive social-cultural change to be fulfilled (Brown & Ryan, 2004; Luthans & Jensen, 2002; Maddux, 2002). As a call-to-action, Social-Emotional Leadership could create the space for the exploration of the many pathways possible in leading communities to optimal levels of flourishing—thereby positively shaping the course of our collective evolution (Haidt, Sederka, & Kesebir, 2007; Wright, 2000). The time is now. Or, if not now, when?

*Note: Visit PPND on September 5 when Louis Alloro (LouisAlloro@aol.com) will present action research he is doing with his extended family and family business as he continues to develop Social-Emotional Leadership into a model that may be replicable for other networks.



Alloro, L.J. (2008). Shift Happens: Using Social-Emotional Leadership to Create Positive, Sustainable Cultural Change. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons.

Aristotle. (350 BCE, 1994). Nicomachean ethics. (W.C. Ross, Trans.). In D.C. Stevenson (Ed.), The internet classics archives.

Brown, K.W., & Ryan, R.M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. and Stavros,J. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2nd Edition (Book & CD). Brunswick, OH: Crown Publishing, Inc.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gable, S. & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology. 9(2), 103–110.

Gergen, K. (1999). An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage.

Haidt, J., Sederka, J. P., & Kesebir, S. (2007). Hive psychology, happiness and public policy. In Posner, E., and Sunstein, C. (Eds.), The Journal of Legal Studies.

Luthans, F. & Jensen, S. (2002). Hope: A new positive strength for human resource development. Human Resource Development Review, 1(3), 304-322.

Maddux, J.E. (2002). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In Snyder, C.R., & Lopez, S.J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 277-287). New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C., Park, N., Sweeney, P. (2008). Group well-being: Morale from a positive psychology perspective. Applied Psychology: An International Review. 57, 19-36.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reivich, K. & Gillham, J. (2008). Penn resiliency program core skills manual. Unpublished
manuscript, University of Pennsylvania.

Robertson, B.J. (2007). Organization at the Leading Edge: Introducing Holocracy. Retrieved
March 1, 2008, from www.holocracy.org

Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2007, September 5). Lecture Delivered for Course 600, Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program, University of Pennsylvania.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H. & Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-Active Coaching, 2nd Edition: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and, Life, 2nd edition. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.

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Kirsten Cronlund 11 August 2008 - 7:25 am

Dear Louis,

Brilliant article! I’m so glad you’re systematizing a study of how we can all help each other reach our most flourishing selves.

I have a couple questions that I would love to open up for discussion, and maybe you can address these in your future articles:

1. Can anyone be a Social Emotional Leader, or does it require a level of emotional intelligence that not everyone possesses?

2. I love the fact that you identify that an SEL can be different things at different times — sometimes a cheerleader, sometimes a truth teller, and sometimes a possibility generator. Is there ever a time when an SEL needs to simply offer comfort?

That’s enough for now. Thanks again, Louis, for this intriguing opening. I can tell you’re going to make a difference in the world with SEL!

Wishing you a flourishing day,

Louis Alloro 11 August 2008 - 11:28 pm

Thanks, Kirsten, for your kind words! The questions you pose are good ones. As for the first, I do think that anyone can be a Social-Emotional Leader. We all have strengths, different from each other. Knowing that alone can make anyone a Social-Emotional Leader for someone who may want or need to build those particular strengths.

As for emotional intelligence, yes, I do think it is important. But as we know from friends like Salovey, Caruso, Mayer, Goleman, and others, EI can be learned — a task schools have largely ignored for too long. I write about this in the capstone, which provides detailed research on why “Social” why “Emotional” and why “Leadership.”

And yes, of course, SELs do provide comfort at times. We all need that. The difference is, I think, that SELs use their EI to know when someone needs comfort OR when someone needs a nudge! We all need that sometimes, too.

“Building the bridge” here with this SEL stuff – so your comments are helping push this construct in new and exciting directions. Thank you.

David 26 August 2008 - 2:02 pm

Thanks for the article ! That really makes me think about what I do with the people around me.

I have a question for you: What would you have preferred your friend say when buying the swimsuit? In other words, what would have been an ideal example of Social Emotional Leader for you in that situation?

Louis Alloro 27 August 2008 - 11:15 pm

Thanks for an excellent question, Dave.

As a Social-Emotional Leader, he would have nudged me towards a positive self-image by tapping into “what’s good about Louis”. In this case, this friend knows me quite well–and therefore has some understanding of my belief systems (the radio station running through my head). Like any positive approach, he would have focused on my strengths.

If, however, getting into shape was a task important for me to consider (that’s the nice way of saying “If I were fat and needed to do something about it”), he would have found creative and persistent ways to give me that
message. As such, Social-Emotional Leaders are possibility-generators and hope-builders (the gardeners who help make our souls blossom).

As a Social-Emotional Leader, he could offer himself as a workout buddy–or a buddy with whom I could be held accountable if losing weight was a struggle and I was ready to do something about it. Further, this system of
accountability could be a win-win. We could make agreements together to report in on what we eat, or the baby-steps we take toward healthy goals we help each other set. We’d be each others’ coaches and advocates–to help change the dysfunctional belief systems, not enable them…nor ignore them.

Consider how social support may be the crucial ingredient in the AA model and probably the reason why so many people can change their relationship with alcohol before it completely destroys them.

I hope this helps. You’re spot on about how Social-Emotional Leadership could make us more conscious with how we interact with the people we love–whose well-beings we already care about. Stay tuned for September 5 when Sherri Fisher and I talk about more practical applications of this Social-Emotional Leadership model, particularly in light of the action research with my family.


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