The simplest explanation of positive leadership

October 9, 2017

By: Chris White

“It is hard to be that nice all the time” complained a friend as we discussed the pros and cons of positive leadership. “And besides, people don’t want things sugar-coated. Sometimes they need tough love.”

Quite a few people I meet have the same concerns about positive leadership, even if they do not say them out loud, or to my face. Yet the concerns my friend expressed are not only valid, they are consistent with how I think about positive leadership.

Civility is foundational to positive leadership. Everybody deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, whether we are in agreement or not, and whether our performance meets expectations or not.  Yet integrity and authenticity are also essential to positive leadership. People have an innate sense of when they are being patronized. Being sugary-sweet to a colleague’s face while feeling the opposite way inside – or even worse expressing these negative views to a mutual colleague – is far from positive leadership. We need to believe in what we are saying and doing, and act with integrity and civility.

Oftentimes, we think in terms of singular outcomes: “We must be more creative! We must be more collaborative! We need to be more competitive! We need to be more flexible! We need to have better processes!” Yet positive leadership is all about embodying and integrating paradoxes. We need to be hard-driving and set ambitious, energizing visions and goals… and we need to care for people deeply and support them along the way. These two goals are not opposing each other. Sustainable success only comes from doing both at the same time.

Professor Bob Quinn built a stellar career as a scholar and teacher from a profound understanding of paradox. Enabling and managing important yet competing values is a core principle of positive leadership. How can organizational cultures be both competitive and collaborative at the same time? How can they be creative, but also have strong internal controls, processes, and policies?

Early in my time at the Center for Positive Organizations, I was seeking to better understand Positive Leadership. I asked Bob to explain it to me. His reply has stayed with me ever since.

“Positive leaders place one hand on your back to push you along faster and further than you ever thought possible. They place their other hand under your arm, to catch you if you are going to fall too hard along the way.”

This is a simple but powerful metaphor.

When we do not reconcile competing yet important values in ways that are healthy for the organization, unintended negative consequences can occur. A workplace that encourages relentlessly competitive behaviors without also fostering collaboration will lead to backstabbing, undermining, potentially unethical behavior. Conversely, a team that encourages collaboration without also encouraging competitiveness can become directionless and uninspired.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The positive leader integrates paradox. She chooses to transcend either-or choices, and adopt integrative positions that are more effective than either independent alternative; she communicates them in ways that make sense for those around her. With one hand on our back, and the hand under our arm, positive leaders help us all create better outcomes than we thought possible.

This post was written for the Huffington Post’s Great Work Cultures initiative. See this and other GWC posts here.