ATD Blog

What’s a Positive Leader?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

To understand the term positive leader, perhaps it is best to start with what it’s not. It’s not just the opposite of a negative leader. In fact, the concept of positive leader was introduced by Kim Cameron, Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship.

His work was introduced to me about ten years ago while I was attending the Authentic Happiness Coaching program conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman. He wanted all his coaches—in all walks of life—to incorporate the learnings of the new and exciting field of Positive Psychology into our own work so we could together help to “raise tonnage of happiness on the planet.”

Through the years Marty’s big, hairy, audacious goal became more specific, and now the goal is to see 51 percent of the world’s population flourishing by 2051. In other words, the goal is to see 51 percent of the world experiencing well-being on a daily basis. I certainly think that would be cool.

So, here I am—doing my part.

It was easy to combine Marty’s work into mine, because I was already teaching customer-focused leaders to thrive, and positivity simply added “power-tools” to my toolkit. And discovering that much of what I had already been teaching for years had proof (scientific proof, no less!) that it worked just made me more confident and bolder in my teachings.

Positive leadership affirms human potential


I believe that as leaders we have a profound responsibility to make the world a better place. Acting as a positive leader—focusing your attention on increasing the "positive capacity" of your organization—will benefit you, your customers, your workforce, and your community and maybe even the world.

Positive leaders, according to Cameron have an “affirmative bias.” They focus on strengths and capabilities and on affirming the heights of human potential.

Creating more “positive capacity” (or what Cameron calls “positive deviance,” referring to extraordinary results on the right side of the bell curve) means using deliberate strategies to consistently create more positive experiences at work.

Positive leadership doesn’t ignore negativity


Positive leadership builds on negativity to create new positive outcomes. It sees negativity as opportunity and fuel for change. Work done by Dr. Barbara Frederickson, from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, tells us that there is a “positivity ratio” (ratio of positive to negative experiences) that needs to be achieved for a human being to shift from languishing to flourishing. It’s roughly 3:1. When we have three times more positive experiences to every negative one, we’ll feel pretty good.

Three times more positive emotion than negative will go a lot further toward making us more creative, solving problems quicker, and building stronger immune systems. More positive emotion will help us reverse the adverse affects of stress on the body, as well as create more resilience, confidence, and hope.

Bottom line

When leaders create an environment where people feel good about themselves and the part the play in the organization’s larger mission, people feel good at work. Many will feel happy. Happy people focused on creating great customer experiences are the very best competitive advantage you have in the marketplace.


About the Author

JoAnna Brandi is the author of two books on customer loyalty and one on positive choices. She is the publisher of the Customer Care Coach® self-study leadership program, and author of the upcoming From Positive Thinking to Positive Doing: Positivity Practices that Will Help You Turn Happiness into a Habit.

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