Teaching and Leading Positively, Part 3: Living What We Teach

January 23, 2013

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

This six-part series, “Teaching and Leading Positively,” explores the goals of teaching positive leadership: not merely to serve as an instructor conveying the theories or practices drawn for positive organizational scholarship, but to prompt lasting transformation in the way our students work and live. Serving as this kind of catalyst requires full engagement on our part. We must live from the positive leadership framework, allowing our students to learn by our example, each other’s, and their own.

For 10 years, positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship have scientifically explored the value of examining things when they are operating at an extraordinary level. One line of research has shown the power of positive feelings and of virtues such as gratitude.

The two fields have been well received and have grown considerably. Predictably, critics have emerged. One of the first critical books was written by a woman who had cancer. She wrote with some fury. In making her point, she cites the title of what she considers a ridiculous book, “The Gift of Cancer.” She attacks the positive lens as unrealistic and dangerous.

In making her attack, she is pointing out the dangers of optimistic self-deception. But the positive lens is not about unfounded optimism. It is about intelligent optimism. It is about seeing reality clearly and choosing to engage reality from a state of high functionality.

This week I had dinner with a woman who often teaches materials based on positive organizational scholarship. She was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She determined to be proactive in going through the process and to do it in the framework of gratitude. She told me one amazing story after another. For the last few days I have been pondering those extraordinary stories.

Yesterday I received an email from one of the women on the staff of the business school. In addition to doing her job, she volunteers to help other university employees by doing workshops and giving talks about the application of positive organizational scholarship. She wrote about what she plans to do in an upcoming session:


So, my plan is to talk about gratitude and the impact of keeping a gratitude journal, making a gratitude visit, sharing research such as the Nun Study, and my passion for being grateful. But I also plan to talk about the fact that in my personal experience, it is not always possible to be grateful every moment. Life happens. In my life, my Mom suffers from Alzheimer’s and has had it for five years. So far, it has been a slow progression, but it is still happening and it is not easy! My husband has been unemployed for two years and has low self-esteem. In addition, he has been told he needs open heart surgery and he is in total denial. None of these things is a piece of cake, but I am able to cope because of my faith and my belief that if we focus on all that we have to be grateful for in our lives, it will give us the strength to get through the rough times. What do I have to be grateful for? I am able to share this research with everyone and hopefully plant a seed or help them in their daily lives. I have a good job and a great boss. I have three children who graduated from college even though I barely had a dime to help them. I have five grandchildren. I am given the opportunity to sing in church. My Mom is still alive. My husband makes me laugh all the time…The list is endless!!!

I’m not sure I’ve expressed this as well as could be written, but I’m hopeful that you’ll get the gist of what I’m trying to say.

I get the gist. The challenges of life are very real. How we choose to engage them is critically important. I am surrounded by ordinary people who choose how they live. That makes them extraordinary.