Positive Leadership: Playing on People’s Strengths

Illustration: Norman Gracia

IESE Prof. Alberto Ribera: “In today’s competitive market, companies that espouse a positive leadership approach will be much better positioned to prosper and sustain performance over time.” | Illustration: Norman Gracia

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report for 2017, 67 percent of employees are “not engaged,” which means they are satisfied but operating at bare minimums. Another 18 percent are “actively disengaged” — miserable and more than happy to share their malaise with anyone within earshot.

A quick calculation leads to a depressing deduction: a paltry 15 percent of employees enthusiastically dedicate their talents and energy to advancing corporate initiatives. Against this dismal backdrop, what can global leaders do to motivate and inspire their teams? Mastering the art of positive leadership may hold the solution.

While it may sound like a new-age fad, positive leadership is grounded in years of academic research with unequivocal findings: engaging employees and aligning them around a mission-driven objective elevates organizational performance.

The concept first took root more than a decade ago at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business as part of a study on corporate downsizing. In their findings, Ross scholars observed that corporate performance took a nosedive in about 85 to 90 percent of cases following a downsizing. In the remaining 10 to 15 percent, however, organizations actually flourished! What was the secret to their success?

“The companies that thrived all shared a common thread: they applied positive leadership, or what I call ‘organizational virtuousness’ by implementing practices and processes such as forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and integrity,” explains Prof. Kim Cameron, William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations at Michigan Ross.

“In this regard, the job and duty of a leader is to help create an organization where it is easy to be supportive and practice virtuousness, compassion and kindness. When that happens, the data is very clear: organizational performance goes up.”

Despite its name, positive leadership isn’t about “fake positivity” nor does it require managers to accept mediocrity or have naturally optimistic and upbeat temperaments. Rather, the focus is on playing to people’s strengths and helping them find meaning in their work — as opposed to the traditional practice of shining a spotlight on their weaknesses.

According to Prof. Alberto Ribera of IESE’s Managing People in Organizations Department, “Positive leadership starts with nurturing a culture of trust, transparency and appreciation for employees, who feel they can voice their opinions and make mistakes without fear of reprisal. In today’s competitive market, companies that espouse this approach will be much better positioned to prosper and sustain performance over time.”


IESE and Michigan Ross will host the first-ever executive education program on positive leadership in Europe. Don’t miss the upcoming focused program Become a Positive Leader to Accelerate Positive Change.”

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