What makes a positive leader?

Leaders who focus on bringing out the best in people and themselves can transform the way their organisation functions and achieve exceptional results.

Most models of leadership assume that influence is key – i.e., if you are influential, then you are a leader.  We also know that traditional approaches to leadership often focus on fixing problems, maintaining the status quo or helping people be good rather than exceptional.

Positive Leadership – also known as Positive Organisational Scholarship – is designed to enable the best in people and inspire them to strive for the remarkable. Positive leaders engage people by emphasising what elevates them, what they do well, and how they can be inspired to deliver extraordinary results. They aim to help reset the bias in organisations and teams from negative to positive and spark upward spirals of positivity and performance.

Kim Cameron’s Research

Kim Cameron is the William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organisations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. His empirical research into Positive Leadership is based on organisations that achieve exceptional success. Much of his work involves companies that thrive in the aftermath of restructure, and that positively deviate from the norm. In these companies, leaders go beyond everyday problem solving, helpful behaviour and motivational approach, by implementing strategies that leverage strengths and possibilities and achieve dramatic improvements.

In his presentation at the 6th IPPA Congress in Melbourne in July 2019, Kim summarised a selection of studies demonstrating how positive leadership practices foster flourishing in individual employees and also flourishing in organisational performance as well.

Positive Leadership in the Financial Services

One of his studies related to Prudential Real Estate CEO, Jim Mallozzi. When Jim was appointed to the role, the organisation was losing US$70 million, and the year before they had lost US$140 million. Not good news for financial services! Turnover was high and morale was low.

So what did Jim and Kim do about this?

Jim’s team of 30 senior executives were asked by Cameron to identify people who were ‘positive energisers’ (one of the attributes of positive leadership) throughout the entire organisation. These 28 positive energisers were then brought to corporate headquarters in America (and some had never been to the US before) and were given the goal to ‘infect’ the rest of the organisation (about 20,000 employees) with positive practices and positive leadership, in 80 days. To be ‘infected’ meant that these freshly appointed energisers would teach the new set of positive leadership practices and values to others, and have all attempted a 1% personal change.

If you take an around the world trip, and are 1° off your course, you will land in a very different location to the one you had planned. So, all it takes is 1%, over time, to make significant change. Many of the energisers thought that it could be done in 80 days, yet the results were astounding.

  • They received the JD Power Award for Service
  • 93% of employees with infected with positive leadership practices in 80 days
  • Employee opinion scores increased in 9 out of 10 categories
  • From US$70 million loss to US$20 million profit
  • Achieved 2 times business plan
  • Voluntary turnover declined
  • Stock value higher than parent firm

Positive Leadership in the Not-For-Profit Sector

What about Positive Leadership in governments, where unions, bureaucracy and recalcitrance are often major barriers?

For this, Kim used the example of when he worked with an environmental clean-up company charged with winding down operations at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility in the US which had been temporarily closed after violating environmental laws. Conflict and grievances were rife among staff, bi-weekly public demonstrations had marred operations for decades, and with the closure of the facility, employees had immediately lost their mission, and were transformed from patriotic heroes – keeping the world safe for democracy – to environmental criminals.

The challenge was that nobody in the history of the world had ever cleaned up and closed a nuclear arsenal. The government estimated the clean-up would take 70 years and $36 billion to complete. Yet this was a gross under-estimate. When the clean-up company arrived, they found 21 tonnes of weapons-grade nuclear material (enough to blow up the planet!) and 100 tonnes of nuclear ‘dust’ throughout the facility, amongst many other enormous challenges.

Yet the company finished the work 60 years ahead of schedule, $30 billion under budget, and 13 times cleaner than federal standards! What’s more, the culture among workers had shifted from recalcitrance to enthusiasm; union relations improved; adversaries became advocates and partners; and multiple technical innovations were made to increase productivity and safety performance.

Obviously great obstacles and challenges were experienced, yet somehow, they stayed positive, bounced back and grew through them to achieve exceptional results. A senior manager of the cleaning company said “We tried to always follow our values of honesty, virtue and trustworthiness. The proof is in the results”.

Kim put the results down to the Positive Leadership strategies employed by the company during the turnaround.

Positive Leadership Works

After over 15 years of empirical research, Kim concludes that an abundance culture (virtuous practices) and implementing positive leadership practices are significantly and positively related to profitability, productivity, quality, efficiency, innovation, customer satisfaction, customer retention and employee engagement, employee retention and employee morale. These are all of the things that leaders are held accountable for (at least in the profit sector). The evidence suggests that by implementing positive practices, you get bottom line results.

So How Can You Measure the Positive Leadership in Your Organisation?

Here are the eight dimensions that Kim measures when they measure positive practices, virtuousness and abundance culture. To what extent does your organisation represent, or embed the following?

Why does this work? 

One of the theories that explains why Positive Leadership works is the Heliotropic Effect. Every living system has a tendency towards that which is life giving (light and positive energy) and away from that which is life depleting (darkness and negative energy). Think of a sunflower that moves its face to follow the sun!

So Positive Practices are about how to foster and expose people to a tendency towards life giving positive energy. It works because we are inclined to flourish in the presence of positive energy. There are of course caveats to this (e.g. we learn from failure and negative experiences) yet positivity is essential for us to flourish.

Kim Cameron’s Top Tip for Making Positive Culture Change

The first step is to identify the easily-implemented 1% changes that you can make within your organisation. The image below shows that there are many to choose from.

If you can get a group of 30 people (energisers) to select and make a 1% change, then that collectively makes a 30% change that eventually gains momentum. No revolutionary change or restructure is required. The small changes will bubble up into something greater – 46 positive energisers will positively influence 135,000 people!

So, start with your chosen 1% of positive change, and the rest will follow.

Contact us to discuss how else we can help you develop positive leaders in your organisation.


Kim Cameron’s full presentation from the 2019 World Congress of Positive Psychology is available on the IPPA website to all IPPA members.