Defining Positive Leadership

{Malinga, Stander, & Nell, 2019. Positive Leadership: Moving Towards an Integrated Definition and Interventions. In Van Zyl & Rothmann (eds.), Theoretical Approaches to Multi-Cultural Positive Psychological Interventions.}

A critical review of the positive leadership literature suggests that positive leadership in organizations consists of leadership traits: optimism and a “can-do” mindset, altruism, an ethical orientation, and motivational characteristics; that a positive leader should possess, as well as specific leadership behaviors: creating a positive working environment, developing positive relationships, focusing on results, and engaging in positive communication with employees; and that these behaviors will, in turn, enhance certain leadership outcomes: such as enhanced overall productivity and performance levels, improved organizational citizenship behaviors, and enhanced employee wellbeing that are beneficial to the leader, his or her employees, and the organization as a whole.

Leadership Outcomes

What impacts do positive leaders have on valued outcomes via their positive leadership traits and behaviors?

Well, what outcomes are valued, and who is to decide?

You want wellbeing for your employees, increased individual performance and organizational productivity, and organizational citizenship behavior? Appoint positive leaders.

Positive leaders keep their employees happy and “positively emoted,” they increase employee engagement, social-emotional wellbeing, trust, and commitment, all contributing to employee wellness.

Positive leaders who are typically optimistic and hopeful about the future and have a “can-do” mindset are positively biased in attitude and stay positive in the face of difficulty, positively impacting employee engagement, performance, and productivity.

Positive leadership behaviors, such as being results driven and creating a positive work environment, also increase employee productivity.

A positive leader displays ethical characteristics with integrity, acting trustworthy and fair toward employees, thus eliciting a whole range of positive outcomes, especially organizational citizenship behaviors. In addition, creating a positive work environment and eliminating the negative result in increased organizational citizenship behaviors.

Positive Leadership Traits

A typical positive leader is optimistic and hopeful about the future, positively biased with a can-do mindset, and positive in the face of difficulty. He or she usually also places the needs of others before his or her own to ensure organizational goals are achieved. Altruism or self-sacrifice is positively related to employees’ organizational citizenship behaviors. A self-sacrificial leader more effectively motivates employees. The positive leader is ethically oriented, fair, trustworthy, and has integrity. A positive leader, functioning with a purpose and meaning, can motivate and inspire employees, making them feel appreciated and find meaning in their work. Positive leaders believe in their employees; they focus on positives rather than negatives. Still, they assertively address negative employee behaviors while refraining from unnecessarily discouraging them.

Positive Leadership Behaviors

A positive leader strives to create a positive work environment conducive to all and eliminate the negatives (wrong people, processes, and equipment hindering employees’ work progress and performance), building positive structures through appointing the right talent, sharing the organizational vision and goals, and focusing on organizational effectiveness.

A positive leader is considered trustworthy, developing positive relationships through teamwork and trust and empowering and supporting employees to increase organizational citizenship behaviors, social wellbeing, and individual and organizational performance, resulting in positive emotional experiences for employees.

Positive leaders drive results by encouraging outstanding performance. They have high expectations of their employees and encourage them to achieve organizational goals. A positive leader pursues success, continuously boosts and develops employees’ strengths and potentials, and generally recognizes employees’ accomplishments, thereby promoting increased employee engagement and productivity.

Positive leaders generally communicate positively, empowering and supporting their employees, showing appreciation for good work, and providing negative feedback constructively. They involve employees in decision-making and problem-solving through a two-way inclusive communication approach.

Defining Positive Leadership

{We organize our thinking around the concept of positive leadership as a guiding principle for operationalizing our services. It is not taken as an ontological category.}

What would you include in a positive leadership vision?

Here are some major elements to consider: commitment, courage, dignity, healthy control, choice, decision, will to action, responsibility, freedom, challenge, personal meaning, authentic community, communication, activism, social support, and faith. (Loyd & Atella, 2000).

We expect positive leadership to develop higher-level universal moral values and character, enhance employee meaning and connection, and maximize employee wellbeing and sustained performance excellence. (Fry & Matherly, 2006).

In addition, its actions focus on the good and on encouraging human potentialities, motivations, and capacities; its concern with excellent performance and improving employees’ sense of meaning would center on virtue and eudemonism. (Antino et al., 2014).

A positive leader would employ a strengths-based approach, focusing on and leveraging employee strengths to benefit all, maintaining a positive perspective, and frequently recognizing and encouraging good work, thus increasing employee engagement and productivity. (Arakawa & Greenberg, 2007; Robinson, 2007).

Positive leadership emphasizes what elevates and inspires, what goes right and is experienced as good, life-giving, and extraordinary, in addition to what challenges and is arduous, what goes wrong and is objectionable, problematic or life-depleting, and merely effective. It considers the good and the bad in individuals and organizations. (Cameron, 2008).

Positive leadership activates the conditions (cognitions, affects, expectancies, goals and values, and self-regulatory plans) that enable and direct effective leader behaviors through a self-regulatory focus on a leader’s self-construct. (Hannah et al., 2009).

Positive leadership has antecedents and outcomes. It is a systematic and integrated manifestation (making public, embodying, marshaling) of things (traits, behaviors, processes, and performance outcomes) elevating, exceptional, and affirmative of the strengths, capabilities, and developmental potentials of leaders, their employees, and organizations over time and across contexts. (Youssef & Luthans, 2012).

Positive leaders adopt a strengths-based approach to create a culture where employees continuously develop and utilize strengths and essential virtues to produce above-average performance and results. (Blanch et al., 2016).

Positive leaders achieve organizational goals by empowering and supporting their employees by giving support, behaving ethically, and facilitating more effective teamwork. (Wong & Cummings, 2007; Wijewardena et al., 2014).

Positive leaders portray leadership behaviors such as empowerment, communication, motivation, and keeping their employees accountable. In addition, they focus on positively influencing and encouraging employees to flourish in their work. (Gauthier, 2015).

Organizational leaders ensure employees find meaning, are engaged and feel safe at work (Rodriguez & Rodriguez, 2015). A positive leadership approach is a viable means of achieving such states and increasing hope, optimism, and confidence.

The positive leader uses positive strategies to influence employees to achieve the organization’s goals and objectives: building a positive structure, operating with a positive purpose, establishing a positive climate, developing positive relationships, and engaging in positive communications.

Positive leadership is more than a leadership style; it is a leadership approach; it is a mindset.

Creating a positive work environment requires hope, optimism, trust, and fairness, as well as eliminating the negative, sometimes through critical, focused-negative behavior. (Lam & Roussin, 2015).

Positive Psychology, Leadership, Behavior, Organizational Scholarship

What makes life worth living? What contributes to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions?

How can we enhance and utilize human strengths for employees to prosper and thrive in organizations?

What works? How do we identify and recognize employees’ strengths? How do we empower employees?

Constant change is challenging and overwhelming, asking leaders to deal with volatile market demands; uncertain financial and socio-political conditions; complex interdependencies arising from local unrest, upheaval, ecological catastrophes, war, and oppression, leading to famine, the collapse of order, and mass migrations; and ambiguity of what governance, the law, politics, science, technology, and education decisions and actions really accomplish.

Positive Interventions for Developing the Positive Leader

Creating a positive culture conducive to positive leader development includes: Developing leaders’ and employees’ Psychological Capital, that is, creating hope, resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy as leadership traits and behavior; developing a leader’s emotional maturity (or Emotional Intelligence) as a characteristic of successful and positive leaders; focusing on job crafting; creating meaning; building trust; using humor in the workplace; empowerment; applying mindfulness, and improving cultural sensitivity training.

Intervention One: Positive Leader as Optimizer of Potentials (The Manager as Coach)

Positive leaders typically create a safe, trusting environment where employees have a sense of belonging, can be empowered, and experience engaging interactions while driving for results. A positive leader must be competent and passionate about people’s development. Organizations should train their managers to master a coaching model, such as the GROW model, supported by enhancing specific ancillary skills and attitudes.

The competent manager-coach evaluates patterns and trends in employee performance, creates awareness through ongoing feedback, provides learning experiences, allows opportunities for reflection, and assists in action planning and identifying critical steps to goal accomplishment. (Steelman & Wolfeld, 2018).

The overarching guiding vision could be establishing positive leader behaviors for creating a positive environment (climate), building positive relationships, managing for results (meaning; wellbeing, and performance), and applying engaging communication. In addition, the coaching can be structured according to identifying and prioritizing specific outcomes or goals, assessing the existing situation or reality in terms of obstacles, as well as existing resources related to the goal, exploring possibilities and various alternative strategies and options to achieve the goals, and get the participant to commit or exert their will in taking specific action steps as part of the way forward.

Competence factor one: Specific coaching behaviors

Organizations can facilitate developing managers in specific behaviors:

For example, active listening, behavioral observing, accurate responding, honest value add feedback, setting clear expectations and communication, facilitation, challenging thinking, removing obstacles, creating ownership, and driving for results.

A core behavior is to identify and focus on individual strengths instead of weaknesses and to support the employee to optimize their use.

A list of needed behaviors (Hamlin, Ellinger, & Beattie, 2006): A questioning approach when discussing development needs and interventions, being a support and information resource for employees, transferring task ownership to direct reports, creating a learning environment, communicating expectations, broadening employees’ perspectives, engaging with employees, caring, informing, being professional, advising, reflective thinking, empowering, challenging, proactive management, supportive leadership, inclusive decision-making, consults widely and keeps people informed.

Competence factor two: Creating positive relationships with employees

High-quality coaching relationships build on genuineness, effective communication, comfort with relationship, and facilitating development. (Gregory & Levy, 2010).

Integrity, trust, genuine interest, clear intent, commitment, and employee development support increase clients’ growth. (Grant et al., 2010).

Commitment, trust, and respect create feelings of understanding that are important for developing quality coaching relationships. (Grant, 2014).

The manager-coach can receive emotional intelligence training to improve relationships, supported by workplace coaching and mentoring that build their confidence to share experiences and skills with direct reports.

Competence factor three: Following a sound feedback process

Meaningful manager feedback, given clearly, directly, and respectfully should support employees to gain deeper insight into their behavior. A positive leader empowers or creates a psychologically safe environment for employees to ask for feedback. A favorable feedback environment involves manager credibility, feedback quality, feedback delivery, promotion of feedback seeking, frequency of favorable and unfavorable feedback, and manager availability. (Steelman et al., 2004).

Positive psychology leadership coaching improves intra-personal awareness, openness to emotional experiences, and expression of needs and feelings.

Intervention Two: Strengths-Based Expectations and Encouragement

A consistent and replicable strategy entails the positive leader identifying individual employee strengths and then tailoring expectations and encouragement accordingly.

Collaboratively with the positive leader, the employee would identify signature strengths and preferences using a tool such as the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) survey.

The leader would then take each employee’s unique strengths, role expectations, and specific business context into account when assigning and allocating tasks, formulating expected results, and encouraging performance based on their strengths.

The leader and employee explore how to optimize strengths to address development areas, while the leader encourages employees congruently with their individual strengths profile. Continual monitoring, adjusting, and feedback provide interactions conducive to further development.

Expectations and encouragement adjusted to each employee’s specific signature strengths become individually motivational and result in effective and positive outcomes.

Intervention Three: Positive Leader as a Team Developer

Trust must be developed by being ethical, honest, transparent, and having integrity, thus promoting positive relationships. The leader must take time to build employee relationships, get to know them, and invest in informal sessions with team members. The leader may open up to employees by sharing work and life stories, making them feel safe and comfortable with opening up to their leader.

Open and comfortable interactions are followed by empowering employees to make decisions in their expertise and trusting effective job accomplishment. Individual preferences require more structure and clear deadlines with some employees, while less structure is appropriate with others. The team developer emphasizes collaboration among employees and encourages mutual support. MBTI or Team Management Profile tools may guide effective grouping for diverse preferences.

Once trust has been developed, constructive conflict, commitment, accountability, and results orientation become easier.

A team developer positive leader inspires, motivates, supports, and empowers employees.