With Labor Day behind us, Fall is the time when we really spring ahead. September is full of opportunities for new beginnings, as millions of us return to school and work. What a perfect time for us to consider making some positive changes in the culture of our communities—at home, at school, and at work.
Don’t be dismayed by the “c” word–change. As dynamic beings, the truth is that we change every second of every day. But think about it: in which direction do we move? Are we growing? Are we learning? Are we moving in “upward spirals” to increased well-being, spiraling downward to worsened states, or just jittering in place with complacency? As we begin another school year, we have the opportunity to pay a different kind of attention to our worlds and our realities. Whether we are parents, teachers or students (in my case all three!), we also have a responsibility and opportunity to help others flourish.
Louis Alloro, recent MAPP graduate and character education consultant to schools, has developed an innovative approach to helping you and your community thrive. Social-Emotional Leadership (S-EL), his framework with which groups can contribute to their own positive change. It’s about developing new traditions, customs, agreements and language with those in our primary networks, from families to classrooms to the larger communities where we live and work.
I was lucky enough to interview Louis Alloro. Woven into the transcript below are practical steps you can take to live as a Social-Emotional Leader, bringing attention and consciousness to the things that we all may habitually fail to notice—thereby increasing flexibility and accuracy within the ways we live. (See my Wake Up and Take Notice article about this.)
Sherri: Louis, what is S-EL?
Louis: S-EL is a framework with which groups of people, even as few as two, can intentionally create their own betterment—and that of their relationship. The theory is simple: As Social-Emotional Leaders emerge to look out for the well-being of others, we will help each other become our better selves. In turn, becoming our better selves will make the groups we comprise stronger. As social beings, what Jonathan Haidt calls “hive creatures”, we need this support of others to contribute to our positive growth and evolution.
Sherri: How is this more than just being nice? What does that mean – “to look out for the well-being of others”?
Louis: It means being a true friend – inspiring, authentic, honest, comforting, challenging, hopeful, realistically optimistic, and wholly appreciative. It’s simply being an accountability partner. Consider a woman who needs to lose weight because it is affecting her physical and emotional health. A Social-Emotional Leader could be someone with whom she sets SMART goals and the resulting social accountability is what gives her the nudge to actually do it.
Sherri: Like the coach—or the reliable friend—we all could be!
Louis: Right. Individual Social-Emotional Leaders live in what Robert Quinn calls “the fundamental state of leadership.” This is simply a state of ever-increasing levels of integrity. Our Social-Emotional Leaders help us bring balance and focus to that task. They bring our actions in line with our values.
Sherri: In that sense, we all need Social-Emotional Leaders. And we all can be Social-Emotional Leaders, right?
Louis: Yes! And many people already are. Think about the mentors and coaches already in your life and consider the role they play in helping you build on your strengths and stay motivated. Sometimes they are your truth tellers, other times your cheerleaders and always possibility generators.
Sherri: What do Social-Emotional Leaders do? How can our readers become Social-Emotional Leaders themselves?
Louis: Social-Emotional Leaders take people already on their teams (at home, at school, or at work, for example) and ensure that they are all playing the same game. S-EL is the “game” that could help us evolve more positively—that is, to help each other become more virtuous as true “Aristotelian friends” would.
Sherri: Okay, Social-Emotional Leaders nudge those they care about to operate from a positive paradigm. What are the steps involved?
Louis: First and foremost, they invite people into that possibility, very intentionally, and simply, through dialogue. Further, in every interaction, they use, model, and talk about their own strengths, so that others can potentially learn how to activate similar, complimentary strengths. Character strengths lead to integrity. We know they can be built.
Sherri: So Social-Emotional Leaders steer positive change by using an appreciative approach—building what is already good, making it better. How would a Social-Emotional Leader do this?
Louis: They kindle curiosity with the people around them about what’s already good, thereby creating psychological and social capital to enable positive change. I think one of the first steps is to build authentic positive emotion. Who doesn’t like to have fun? Barb Fredrickson’s work can be applied here. The broadening and building effects of positive emotion can create the space to begin generative conversations about well-being, values, and strengths. As David Cooperrider says, “Human systems move in the direction of the questions they ask.”
Sherri: So, give us an example. I understand you have been conducting action-research with your family.
Louis: Yes, and I’m learning a lot which is helping me build the S-EL model. To thirty extended family members (and a family business), I offered the invitation, then helped create positive space, and now I am slowly introducing the tools that could enable our own flourishing. Baby steps are important, as is leveraging other Social-Emotional Leaders. We have a slew of them in my network and I bet you do too.
Sherri: What did you do with thirty people?
Louis: The first thing I did with my family involved setting up a Nintendo Wii tournament on Easter this past year. Instead of the normal eating and drinking that typically consume our family events, we stepped out of that box and created a new custom, which generated lots of positive emotion for three generations! We have since organized other fun and engaging events, like a field day this summer, which has created the space for us to have a more formal discussion using the VIA (which everyone took) and other tools of positive psychology.
Sherri: How do you see S-EL working at school?
Louis: Schools are an extension of homes and can teach the tools to emerging Social-Emotional Leaders. Imagine groups of families doing this type of work I am doing with my family and the collective efficacy that could result. Schools are a natural gateway for S-EL – the place where the tools of positive psychology could be disseminated in educational programs that transcend the walls of the school and into the homes it supports. It is the place from which a call-to-action could engage an entire community.
Sherri: Can you give us an example of a Social-Emotional Leader at school?
Louis: Imagine a girl trying to improve her grades but making excuses for why she can’t seem to get down to work. A Social-Emotional Leader would kindle curiosity by asking questions that she may not have considered, like, “What would it look like for you to succeed here and how can I help you make this happen?” As such, her Social-Emotional Leader could be a peer, her parent or a teacher—hopefully combinations of each. The tragedy is in letting someone like this fall through the cracks, growing up feeling like a loser or failure, because that is a real risk.
Or a student in a school community working to become more “green” might ask another student, “Do you need that plastic top on your cup? Or that straw? You will only be sitting 20 feet from the drink machine. Perhaps we can save the plastic.” It’s a question, not a requirement. This sort of leadership lets a person choose positive social change because he can see his role in it.
Sherri: Tell us about your preliminary research with students.
Louis: We conducted interviews at an independent school in the US, and illustrated that some students naturally know how to be good Social-Emotional Leaders, but that they are often taking a risk in standing up for someone else (or the environment)—a risk that doesn’t necessarily involve a formalized and intentional or even widely accepted “way of being” in their community. So why speak up?
Sherri: It’s all about giving people the choice – the call, the invitation to “be the change they wish to see in the world.”
Louis: Exactly. Social-Emotional Leaders have the questions – not necessarily the answers. They help us envision what could be, and lead us in baby steps to get there. In other words, they help us see the abundance, the possibility, and the hope for a better, coactively designed future. They invite us into that possibility.
–Invite someone you care about into an appreciative dialogue
–Ask powerful and appreciative questions
–See the abundance and possibility in a future you intentionally create
–Model strengths through positive social change
–Grow in integrity and flourish !
Editor’s Note: Louis Alloro will be writing monthly articles on PPND on the 29th of each month, starting on September 29. We look forward to welcoming Louis as a regular author.
Fun read Sherri!
S-EL sounds a lot like Collaborative Problem Solving by Stuart Albon. It seems to share a lot in common. You’re using dialogue and support to help build strength.
My curiosity about S-EL is whether a S-EL style leadership can be strict, stern, etc…given the demands of a context. I ask because S-EL sounds very attractive as a model.
I don’t know the Albon approach so thanks for sharing that. Since potentially anyone and everyone can become someone’s social-emotional leader, it would make sense that they might have many different personality traits.
A S-EL, however, is not trying to get a change made in an instant, so sternness could be counterproductive. Also, any appreciative approach is not looking to solve problems but to develop opportunities.
Louis will respond to your comment as well.
Nice hearing from you, and thanks for reading!!
Great interview. This brings up a few questions. How does one develop ‘authentic’ positive emotion? For certain people who are not pre-disposed to project positive emotions, can they still be Emotional Leaders by being ‘truth-tellers’? Or must the positive emotions and the truth co-exist together? Also can positivity be different for different people?
Thanks for your note. I’m not extremely familiar with Albon’s work, although I know we’re both interested in psychosocial interventions. Social-Emotional Leadership is a positive psychosocial (group of) interventions, socially constructed by its participants.
So, what I’m doing with my family is whatever we need as a “network”–and could possibly work for your network, but that is to be decided by you and the other Social-Emotional Leaders within it. I suppose that above all else, the job of S-EL is to leverage other Social-Emotional Leaders, so that you are not alone. It’s easier to be strict or stern (when need be) if there is support and strength and love behind it.
Provocative questions! Certainly, it has been shown, levels of positivity are different for each person. That stuff can be measured.
But keep in mind that positive emotion is not all about cheer leading and having “rah rah” fun per se. There are different ways to elicit PE–through joy, interest, contentment, love, gratitude, etc. Social-Emotional Leaders are creative and resourceful. They find ways to bring PE to their networks as it is an essential first part of the S-EL model so far.
Thanks for responding.
It sounds like S-EL promotes coalition building. I recall in the 1990s when the Japanese were supposedly taking over America. Many of their businesses focused on a team approach. Does a S-EL leader need a team to succeed? What role does the S-EL paradigm give to the individual?
You know, when reading this interview I realized I am a fairly cynical person, as I imagine many people are. How can you an approach like this reach people who may be against the idea from the very start?
Towards the end of the article, you ask “So why speak up?” in addressing why a student would take a risk to help someone – or the environment, etc. This brings a lot up, as students are often unwilling to take risks if it seems uncool or not the popular thing to do. Why would someone speak up and help someone who is reluctant to help him/herself? I would imagine it could also become frustrating if they student trying to help someone is not seeing any results.
Last question… is there some level of accountability? What I mean, how do we know that the SELs are capable or qualified to helping others?
I think we’re all inherently part of “teams” – which in my work I call “primary networks,” defined as as established groups of people, two or more, with traditions and histories— families, businesses, organizations, even book clubs.
Social-Emotional Leaders use the strengths-based and future-oriented language emerging from positive psychology to invite generative conversations intended to build character strength from within their networks and from the ground up. As social beings, this dialouge is between people. Although we all arguably have dialouge with ourselves, too, it is the role of Social-Emotional Leader to bring these conversations to their networks. It’s all very intentional.
The role of the individual is to enter Quinn’s (2004) “fundamental state of leadership” — choosing to operate within this paradigm is essential to the model.
Thanks for your questions. Cynical people may have trouble adopting a S-EL paradigm, which is why I think it needs a new name. Any thoughts on this are greatly appreciated!
Once adopted, though, I do think S-EL could become a way of being that is just the way it is — “we will look out for each other in this community.” Once people experience the benefits of this system of accountability, I think we’d have more of you cynical folk on board. It’s all about creating non-zero sum, win-win situations a la Robert Wright (2000).
As for the students unwilling to speak up because it’s uncool, I personally think that is separate from the issue of people who do not want to help themselves. I’m not sure I’m the one to ask about the coolness factor 🙂 but as soon as we get into some schools to do more piloting, that can be addressed.
As for the people who do not want to help themselves, this can be addressed by building efficacy, hope, and the like. S-EL is about taking baby steps towards increased well-being, not huge leaps.
What makes people qualified to be Social-Emotional Leaders? Believing that positive change is possible and then living that change in the world, encouraging those they care about to do the same. Learning and incorporating the tools coming from positive psychology can help in this process (i.e. Reivich et al., 2007; Reivich & Gillham, 2008). Perhaps schools can consider teaching these tools as part of its curriculum?
I think “authentic positive emotion” is not the same for everyone. Marty Seligman asks us to imagine a vertical number line with “0” in the middle. Some people are always in the “+” range, and others are only there sometimes. Where you are comfortable may be your “+” zone.
Authentic happiness happens at the confluence of many things. Pleasure, engagement, meaning, accomplishment and relationships are all places where we can build positive emotion. Many articles on this site address ways to do this sort of building. Several of my other articles have a “How-to” list in them.
The other thing to remember is that some people really benefit from coaching. A social-emotional leader is providing a nudge, not a program of improving well-being. A S-EL is opening up the possibility that things can be different than they are. Maybe that difference includes things that the person had always wanted to do but thought were silly, or bound to fail. The baby steps are a wonderful way to move forward, and forward for some may not be for all!
Sherri – what about the power emotion called contentment. Its the biggie as we age. And so subtle that we overlook it.
This is a good question. We spend a lot of time talking about “happiness” when that is actually different things to different people (see comment #11).
Contentment, as I see it, is the balance of just the right amount of positive and negative emotion in the presence of having one’s needs met. In my experience, it is not a single emotion and it has many somatic elements(warmth, relaxation response, tendency to turn up the corners of the mouth or laugh more easily…)as well. I am not familiar with research specifically on contentment. Then, of course, there are people who are contented and perhaps should not be–
There is research on “practical wisdom” (I think it is Barry Schwartz) and contentment is probably part of that.
I think Social-Emotional Leadership (once it has its new name–see comment #10) has great potential as a paradigm since it can be used right where we already are, and without changing things for everyone. It’s very appealing precisely because it is not “fixing” what is “wrong” but is using what is working (someone’s strengths, a relationship…) and making more of it. It uses the positive energy and emotion of the relationship and builds it. And it’s not what John Yeager calls an “add water” curriculum or a “flavor of the month”. It is generative. PPers like that!
Sherri, the research on calmness is on my blog – see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=233.
I think contentment needs a bit of rebranding (like SEL). “I’m happy?” probably resonates with people more than “I’m content”. Guess one is active and one is passive.
I think its Diener who acknowledges that his measures of life satisfaction only measure active states – not passive states. Perhaps a major flaw in PP?
Is SEL any different from social and emotional intelligence? It does sound like the latest FAD (to be cynical)
I agree that S-EL needs a bit of rebranding.
The good news is, we’re working on it! What would it look like for networks of people to begin looking out for the well being of others? How can we make this cool, and really doable as “just the way it is” — so that it’s NOT another fad. That’s the last thing we need.
Yes, S-EL is more than just social-emotional intelligence. Social-Emotional Leaders *apply* it. Social-Emotional Leadership is about evaluating customs and developing new traditions that can be influential in shaping culture more positively. I think we’ll know more once we get into a school district to pilot the program with an entire community.
It does stand the possibility of being the latest fad, but don’t worry: I’m sure that you have a Social-Emotional Leader in your life that can help you overcome your cynicism. 😉 Social-Emotional Leaders know that trust, hope, and faith bring way better feelings than that. Our task, then: to build more of them, together.
Louis – my hunch is that S-EL won’t take off in Australia – sounds to much like religion (trust, hope and faith).
I think I used the word cynic inappropriately – probably should have been skeptical.
However I was surprised to find out about the origins of the word cynic – “Greek philosophers whose purpose in life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a life free from all possessions.” -sounds like positive psychology might want us all to be cynics?
I encourage you to stay tuned to PPND to find out more about S-EL. I don’t know why you have equated it with religion (or why, even if that were true, it would be worthy of having an entire nation reject it).
Positive Psychology is based on empirical research, and the tools of PP fit very neatly, and necessarily, into the S-EL framework. You mention hope as if it is also a “religion” thing. Rick Snyder’s Hope Theory is an active approach to hope building through the awareness and development of pathways and agency to aid in reaching goals. Do look it up. Search the PPND site to read what a number of us (including me) have written about this. Also, the Palliative Care Team at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) uses Hope Theory when dealing with the families if terminally ill children. HUP is not a church, temple or mosque!
Speaking of Australia, are you familiar with the Geelong Grammar School’s PP and well-being initiatives? Marty Seligman, Karen Reivich, a host of PP luminaries and MAPP grads have delivered PRP training there. See http://www.ggs.vic.edu.au/wellbeing and http://www.ggs.vic.edu.au/index.asp?menuid=200.020
Also, articles on the PPND site reference this work. More info at the Penn Positive Psychology Center, too, on PRP research and findings–They’re very robust!
I did look at the video on your site and think it is very interesting that you can, in a lab setting, find ways to show resilience responses at the brain level. In the real world people also need applied interventions and self-awareness tools. Have you found a way to match/fit interventions for specific people to your graphing system? PP does not advocate what you describe above, though asceticism or approaches found in Buddhism may be the key to “happiness” for many.
I hope that you find your cynical world view is a vehicle for your contentment. Cynicism is often a hurt-prevention tool and therefore it does not build positive emotion but rather attempts to prevent negative emotion.
What strengths of S-EL have you perhaps misunderstood? Please feel free to ask questions and Louis or I will be happy to help you understand it further.
Sherri – phew – can I plead skepticism instead of cynicism.
I’ve developed oz’s best PP course by being skeptical about PP.