Positive leadership competencies to thrive in trying times

July 15, 2020

By: Kim S. Cameron

It goes without saying that we live in a dynamic, turbulent, high-velocity environment. Few countries have escaped unscathed from the worldwide pandemic, and most economists predict that organizations around the globe will face ongoing fiscal stress for years to come.

Because the latest downturn was unprecedented, few clear guidelines exist for leaders regarding how to respond effectively to the unparalleled challenges of rebuilding their economies. Almost no one would try to predict, with any degree of confidence, what the world will be like in five years’ time. Change is too ubiquitous, disruptive and erratic.

That said, empirical research reveals some organizations that have managed to achieve unexpected and exceptional levels of success in spite of the difficult economic situations they faced. A careful examination of these organizations uncovers some unusual strategies based on positive organizational leadership competencies. As I will show in this article, such positive strategies can serve as guidelines for leaders facing trying times.

Positive Deviance

Positive organizational scholarship is an emerging field of research that focuses on positively deviant organizational performance – in other words, successful performance that dramatically exceeds the norm in a positive direction.

This field investigates affirmative dynamics in organizations: an orientation toward strengths rather than weaknesses; toward abundance rather than deficits. It examines virtuousness and eudemonism – celebrating the best of the human condition and that which people consider to be inherently good.

The popular media make these ideas sound like truisms: Treat people well. Reward them for a job well done. Build teams. Foster collaboration. Is it any wonder that positively biased areas of research are sometimes dismissed as saccharine, naive or irrelevant?

Indeed, business parlance over the past 20 years has seen positive terms such as virtue, caring, compassion and goodness give way to negatively charged words such as beat, fight and compete. When the glass looks half empty, business leaders reach for tough-minded, hard-driving, competitive strategies to enhance the bottom line.

And who can blame them? When faced with crises, threats, inadequate resources and deteriorating conditions, it may well be necessary to hunker down and focus on the problems, in order to protect and defend yourself. Common human experience, as well as abundant scientific evidence, supports doing this in certain circumstances; simply ignoring the problems, hoping they will go away, or being overly optimistic and Pollyannaish, will almost certainly lead to failure.

As humans, we learn early in life to remain vigilant to negative events and stimuli, because such things could be dangerous or harmful to us. So it is only natural that business leaders would respond more strongly to and seek to protect themselves against negative phenomena.

Yet this survival instinct, though understandable, may also cause us to overly focus on the problems and obstacles, to the extent that the negative reaction comes to dominate all of our actions.

Although positive responses may not be the first instinctual reaction of leaders facing trying times, it needs to be emphasized that being positively successful is not dependent on there being completely positive conditions. Two decades of my own research have confirmed that positive strategies are highly effective in threatening as well as benevolent situations.

In this article, I demonstrate – based on my research on positive leadership – that far greater success is associated with positive strategies than negative strategies in difficult circumstances.

The Heliotropic Effect

Kim Cameron

Kim Cameron

One key finding from my research is that a focus on the positive is a product of a heliotropic effect. This effect is defined as the tendency in all living systems toward that which gives and enhances life (i.e., positive energy) and away from that which detracts from or endangers life (i.e., negative energy).

Everything alive – from single-cell organisms to complex human systems – has an inclination toward light, positive energy and that which is life-giving. In nature, plants lean toward the sun. People tend to remember and learn faster and more accurately when information is positive rather than negative. (For example people learn positive words faster and remember them longer than negative words.) Human brains are activated more by positivity than negativity. (For example, MRI scans show more brain activation and in more areas in when thinking about positivity compared to negativity.) Physiological functioning in positive conditions exceeds by a wide margin functioning in neutral or negative conditions. (For example, heart rhythms, physiological coherence, immunity to disease are significantly greater in positive conditions.) Life expectancy is longer among people who adopt positive approaches in life versus neutral or negative approaches (The data suggests at least 11 years longer.)

Similarly, leaders who emphasize and capitalize on positive strategies and positive practices tend to produce life-giving, flourishing and highly successful outcomes in organizations. A focus on the positive is life-giving for individuals and organizations in the same way that positive energy in nature enhances thriving in living organisms. This applies especially in circumstances that seem threatening, stressful and worrisome.

My studies of organizations that have downsized, faced bankruptcy, experienced loss of mission and encountered fiscal disasters have led me to conclude that at least five practices, if implemented by leaders, can serve as keys to flourishing in trying times. These five key practices have all emerged from investigations of organizations that achieved unexpected and extraordinary success in the face of difficult economic circumstances.

Key 1: Capitalize on the Heliotropic Effect

A study of the closure and cleanup of a nuclear weapons production facility near Denver, Colorado, illustrates the power of implementing positive strategies and practices even in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

In the 1990s, the Rocky Flats facility was rife with conflict and antagonism. The site had been raided and closed by federal investigators for alleged violations of environmental laws, and employee grievances had skyrocketed. Multiple groups had been staging demonstrations there ever since the ’60s, and there was broad public sentiment that the facility posed a danger to surrounding communities.

Tons of radioactive plutonium and waste were being stored on the site. Radioactive levels were so high that regulators deemed it the most polluted area in the United States. The cleanup effort was estimated to take several decades and cost billions of dollars to resolve.

In 1995, Kaiser-Hill won the contract to tackle this ignominious task. Amazingly, the engineering and environmental firm completed the assignment by 2005—60 years earlier than the estimate—and $30 billion under budget. The zone was left cleaner than required, and safety performance exceeded federal standards.

Antagonists such as citizen-action groups, mayors and state regulators changed from adversaries and protestors to advocates and partners. Labor relations among the three unions involved – the steelworkers, security guards and builders – improved dramatically. More than 200 technological innovations were generated in the service of faster and safer performance.

How did this firm manage to exceed all expectations? An interview with a U.S. Department of Energy executive suggests the answer: “The leadership from the organization was very important … They poured their corporate heart into what we were trying to do. They brought some fabulous positive leadership to the site.”

The CEO of the firm elaborated on this point: “The biggest difference I see between now and 1995 is that, if we went into a building or went around the site … the employees weren’t proud of what they were doing. They didn’t care. There was negativity all around. You go into the buildings now and it’s a totally different feeling. The energy that people put into their work is obvious. The involvement, the pride, the humor, the positivity – you wouldn’t even know this was the same place it was in 1995.”

What the CEO realized, and what the U.S. Department of Energy executive recognized, was that the transformation of this situation hinged on the creation of a positive work environment, positive strategies and positive practices. The following examples of what the firm did reveal some possible measures for other firms looking to capitalize on the heliotropic effect in their own settings.

Key 2: Manage Downturns Virtuously

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the number of passengers flying on U.S. airlines for the next five years dropped to just 80 percent of pre-2001 levels. Because the economic model of the U.S. airline industry was based on an 86 percent seat-fill rate, all of these airlines were losing money. They were faced with at least 20 percent too many pilots, gate agents, mechanics and other personnel.

Colleagues and I studied the strategies implemented by U.S. airlines during this period. As expected, the decision to downsize was almost universal across the industry. One airline eliminated nearly a quarter of its workforce, with no severance benefits. Like many companies facing financial exigency, the stance was to target employees first as a means of cost savings in order to remain in business, given that personnel costs are almost always the largest part of the balance sheet.

Southwest Airlines, however, chose not to eliminate any jobs. Despite losing several million dollars per week in the period following the attacks, Southwest refused to lay off employees.

Then-CEO Jim Parker explained this decision: “Clearly we can’t continue to do this indefinitely, but we are willing to suffer some damage, even to our stock price, to protect the jobs of our people.”

The rationale was explained as follows: “You want to show your people that you value them, and you’re not going to hurt them just to get a little more money in the short term. Not furloughing people breeds loyalty. It breeds a sense of security. It breeds a sense of trust.”

In our study, we found that the virtuousness of the airlines’ approach to the downturn was a major predictor of their financial performance. Southwest performed the best, and the correlation between the virtuousness of the downsizing strategies and financial performance over the next five years was an extraordinarily high .80. The more virtuous the downsizing strategy, the larger the financial return.

While it is often unrealistic to avoid downsizing altogether, my research on downsizing over the past 20 years has found that the way downsizing occurs is more important than the mere fact that it occurs.

Another study involving a large number of downsizing firms across 16 different industries found strong and statistically significant relationships between virtuous practices and outcomes. Organizations that implemented virtuous practices – characterized by high levels of compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, integrity, optimism, trust and so on – performed significantly better on objective outcomes, such as profitability, productivity and quality, as well as on subjective outcomes, such as morale, customer loyalty and employee engagement, than those that did not engage in such practices. Creating a soft landing for employees being let go, paying attention to the survivors who will be experiencing survivor guilt, and ensuring that all employees valued and supported were among the keys to successful downsizing

Key 3: Focus on Abundance Gaps

Abundance gaps represent the difference between normal, expected, standard performance and extraordinary or positively deviant performance. For example, picture a continuum:

  • The left side represents ineffective, inefficient, error-prone performance, or what we might call negatively deviant performance.
  • The middle point represents normal or expected performance, characterized by effectiveness, efficiency and reliability in people and organizations. This is the most common state of healthy individuals and firms.
  • The right side represents positive deviance, or exceptional, outstanding, spectacular performance. The best of the human condition is at this end of the spectrum, so we might call this side virtuous performance.

Between the left side and the middle point is a deficit gap, where the focus is on overcoming difficulties, solving problems, and addressing deficits. Between the middle point and the right side is an abundance gap. Here, the focus is on going from normal, healthy, successful performance to extraordinary, remarkable, outstanding performance.

In trying times, deficit gaps tend to monopolize leaders’ attention. Problem solving overshadows almost all other activities. Obstacles and difficulties cannot be ignored, of course, but they can divert vital attention from abundance gaps.

My research has found that leaders who focus at least as much attention on abundance gaps as on deficit gaps produce far higher levels of performance. For example, in a study of the effectiveness of 30 units in a large health-care system, the normal units that emphasized abundance gaps and implemented positive practices, versus those that focused mainly on solving problems, treating illness and closing deficit gaps, achieved substantially higher levels of performance over a three-year period with regard to employee and patient satisfaction, quality of care, employee engagement, professional relationships and employee turnover. Moreover, a conscious focus on abundance gaps led to improvements in problem solving as well as flourishing, showing that negative deviance can be addressed simultaneously in the process of fostering positive deviance.

A separate study by Marcial Losada echoes this finding. Sixty top management teams were observed working on their own organizational issues for one day, and their communication patterns were coded into several categories.

One category was the number of positive statements made relative to the number of negative statements made throughout the day. A positive statement is helpful, caring, approving, congratulatory and so on. A negative statement is derogatory, critical, disapproving and contradictory. The performance of these top teams’ companies was also assessed, based on profitability, productivity and leadership competence.

High-performing companies averaged five positive statements for every negative statement made during the day. Low-performing companies averaged three negative statements for every positive statement made.

In other words, when the communication of senior executives was biased toward the positive, or toward abundance gaps, performance substantially improved. While not ignoring the problems, leaders who emphasized abundance gaps helped their organizations flourish.

Key 4: Create Positive Energy

Recent research has found that individuals can be identified as positive energizers or negative energizers, and the difference has important implications in trying times. Positive energizers create and support vitality in others. They uplift and boost people. Interacting with positive energizers leaves others feeling buoyant, inspired, and motivated. In contrast, negative energizers deplete the good feelings and enthusiasm of others. They sap strength from people, leaving them feeling exhausted and diminished.

Being a positive energizer is not a matter of being gregarious or outgoing. It is not a personality attribute. The correlation between being a positive energizer and having an extraverted personality, for example, is low and non-significant. People learn how to become positive energizers; it is a developed competency rather than an inherent attribute.

Positive energizers benefit their organizations by enabling others around them to perform better. Research by my colleague, Wayne Baker, has shown that a person’s position in an energy network is far more predictive of success than a person’s position in an information network or an influence network. Specifically, being a positive energizer made individuals four times more likely to succeed than being at the center of an information network or being the most influential person in the organization.

Positive energizers also increased the level of energy of others with whom they worked, and the amount and richness of communication was significantly higher with positive energizers compared with neutral or de-energizing people. Interpersonal relationships, collaboration among colleagues and the efficiency of work being done were all positively affected by individuals who exuded positive energy.

One of the best examples of positive energy in the midst of decline was the leadership displayed by Lee Iacocca when he transformed the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s. I conducted research in which Iacocca’s speeches to his top management team during his tenure as CEO were carefully examined. This examination revealed almost non-stop positivity. Iacocca’s communication was authentic and honest, not just superficial cheerleading and cheap marketing hype. He emphasized positive factors at least five times as often as negative factors. In a challenging environment no less severe than the current economic climate, Chrysler went from bankruptcy to world-record profits in five years. Most executives in the firm attribute this transformation to Iacocca’s positive energy.

Other studies by Wayne Baker and colleagues have confirmed that the highest performing organizations are not only led by positive energizers, but they have three times the number of positive energizers in the workforce than normal organizations do.

Key 5: Implement Positive Practices … Yes, Even Now

Some critics may argue that positive strategies and practices only work in a limited number of settings – and certainly not during high-pressured times like now. Financial firms, for example, are notorious for focusing almost exclusively on short-term monetary returns, and in their dog-eat-dog, win-at-all-costs world, human concerns and virtues may be regarded as luxuries that few can afford.

The military is another institution whose mission and methods might seem at odds with the principles of positive leadership. A command-and-control culture, rigid hierarchies and doctrines of strict obedience would appear to be antithetical to the generous spirit of abundance, virtuousness and positivity.

However, research I have conducted involving both of these sectors yields findings consistent with those of other kinds of organizations. Research of 40 financial services firms, for example, found a strong correlation between positive, virtuous practices and financial performance. Firms that were more compassionate, forgiving, grateful, trustworthy, and teachable were significantly more profitable over a two-year period than firms that were not.

Moreover, firms that improved their positive practices over this same period also significantly improved their financial results. Almost half the variance in financial outcomes in the successful financial organizations could be accounted for by changes in their positive practices.

Research of the U.S. Army over the last decade turns up similar findings. One senior command officer described the caring culture adopted: “The employees of the Army know that their Command is committed to doing whatever it has to do to take care of the people here. Most of our employees … realize the Command is looking for the greater good. They are confident in the Command’s commitment to them, that they will be taken care of. We stand by our word, and people see that.”

A change in the orientation and culture of the Army can be seen by an increasing emphasis on positivity. The head of solider training for a major Army facility explained the current approach being taken to soldier preparation and instruction: “Our soldiers are the best fighters in the world, but we are teaching them how to avoid fighting all together. We have adopted an abundance culture. We will fight – and win – if we have to, but we want to be a military that teaches the world that we do not need to fight to obtain the desired objectives.”

In short, positive leadership is about restoring a much-needed balance to the way organizations are run. It focuses on:

  • what elevates individuals and organizations, in addition to what challenges them;
  • what goes right in organizations, in addition to what goes wrong;
  • what is life-giving, in addition to what is problematic;
  • what is experienced as good, in addition to what is objectionable;
  • what is extraordinary, in addition to what is merely effective;
  • what is inspiring, in addition to what is arduous.

Positive leadership means promoting thriving at work, interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behavior, positive emotions, and energizing networks as outcomes. This kind of leadership may be rare, especially today, but it is more essential than ever if organizations are to flourish in today’s business context.

To Learn More

Cameron, K. Practicing Positive Leadership: Tools and Techniques That Create Extraordinary Results. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

Cameron, K. Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Second Edition 2012.

Cameron, K. and M. Lavine. Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance: The Rocky Flats Story. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.

Cameron, K., J.E. Dutton and R.E. Quinn, editors. Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003.