Positive Leadership in Practice: A Model for Our Future

I come from a huge Irish family. I have 37 first cousins on my mum’s family alone, and I grew up in the cosmopolitan East End of London with neighbours and friends from all over the world, all striving to build new lives for themselves. It’s no surprise that I have always been fascinated by the diversity of human beings and how we develop and grow, and what motivates and drives us. I am regularly reminded that the same genetics and context can result in such different outcomes….. and that’s to do with environment, the way we are socialised, the opportunities we have, and fundamentally the leaders that surround us in our course of life. Leaders can bring the best and the worst out of themselves, and out of those around them. In my diverse career I have had the privilege and opportunity to interview world leaders (as a journalist), to meet and interview hundreds of leaders in their organisations (as a teacher, and consultant), and worked and supported the development of thousands of leaders at all stages in their development journey (as a consultant and leadership psychologist working across sectors, including in international business schools and directly with corporates, charities, and growing businesses). 

In March 2020 it was the start of the pandemic for us in the UK and with my life context and work to date I was reflecting on the social upheaval of the #blacklivesmatter and #metoo movement along with the state of international leadership. At that time Donald Trump, Vladmir Putin, Boris Johnson and their limited reactions to the pandemic were already being measured against the more considered and compassionate reactions of Jacinda Ahern, Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon and others. It occurred to me that there was so much Positive Psychology could share in the leadership domain to amplify our current levels of leadership. I had been applying positive psychology in my work practice for the past 15 years – and I wanted to package up what I was learning, seeing, and doing and the positive impact it was having. I found myself wanting to capture my decades of learnings and research in a critical moment in our history, to share how we could – and in some cases were – able to do leadership better by considering more consciously how we bring the best out of ourselves and others.

I approached Dr. Jolanta Burke to work with me on a book on Positive Leadership to do just this. (Dr Burke was a prior lecturer of mine at the University of East London, who had done some really great work in applying positive psychology in the school leadership space, and continues to do trailblazing work in wellbeing and beyond). After several discussions, we decided we wanted to develop this book with the aim to help leaders become the best versions of themselves, achieve extraordinary results, and help their team accomplish the same. 

At the start of what then became a 2-year research project, we begun by looking at what did we already know about what leaders can do to bring the best out of themselves and others through their mindsets and behaviours? Kim Cameron was the first academic to think about positive psychology in leadership. According to his model (2008) positive leadership comprises:

(1) facilitating the extraordinary positive performance, 

(2) affirmative bias, and 

(3) facilitating the best human condition. 

Facilitating extraordinary performance relates to leaders becoming focused not only on being ‘good enough’ and displaying mediocre performance but helping their team achieve their potential and become the best versions of themselves. Affirmative bias is about leaders focusing on strengths instead of ‘fixing’ their team’s deficits. Finally, facilitating the best human condition refers to creating (1) a positive climate, (2) positive relationships, (3) positive communication, and (4) positive meaning. The model is used extensively in research worldwide.

We wanted to take this model further. We wanted to develop a book packed with research and practical advice from real-life positive leaders, offering an extensive look into both what high-performance leadership is and how it can be achieved. I realised and know that now more than ever and in a time of complexity and chaos we need positive leaders who will lead and learn, and this knowledge needed to be shared and circulated to stop leaders looking in the dark. We took a deductive approach to our research into digging deeper into the ‘HOW’ and the PRACTICE of Positive Leadership. We reviewed the last 20 years of positive psychology research; its prevalence of topics; and their impact on individuals, organisations, and society. We drew on our research and professional experiences in the hundreds of workplaces we have worked within or consulted for. We reviewed the literature for each one of the topics we identified as being relevant (to supporting optimal functioning) and explored its application in leadership. We included research that related to either leaders, organisations, or their team members. We narrowed down the themes and created the six-element ALIGHT model (Alight Figure). 

ALIGHT is an acronym that stands for abundance, limberness, inspiration, grand design, health, and tribe – six fundamental resources that leaders can tap into to alight their own and their team’s motivation and transform their performance to an extraordinary level. To best illustrate the diverse and cross-sector application of the model, we then interviewed eight extraordinary ordinary leaders across a range of sectors and explored their perspectives and reflections on leadership practice. We deliberately chose leaders that other senior leaders in their fields nominated; they were selected as being positive leaders who demonstrated behaviours that brought the best out of themselves and others and that were representative of different sectors, genders, and cultures to illustrate the application of positive leadership in various aspects of our worlds and lives. We analysed these interviews using a deductive thematic analysis approach that provided evidence of practice for the ALIGHT elements of our positive leadership model. 

Moving on from this, we covered in the book the what, the why, the how, and the application of positive leadership. This practical dimension has been missing from books referencing positive leadership to date, and therefore we hoped it would have much broader application in creating positive organisational cultures – and so far, we are receiving lots of positive feedback that it is doing just this. 

The book tells a story of our journey and the journey of thousands of other leaders to date, a journey that will undoubtedly continue as we learn more about what it is like to be a positive leader. 

We discovered and explain in our book that Positive Leadership in Practice is a resource that all leaders can tap into to be more effective. The six ALIGHT resources can be further broken down into 18 core components that leaders with these resources showcase, demonstrate, and develop. 

  • Abundance is made up of having a strengths mindset, strengths spotting and strengths use.
  • Limberness is made up of being adaptable, emotionally agile, and resilient. 
  • Inspiration is made up of having optimism and hope, self-efficacy, and being able to develop energising networks around you.
  • Grand Design is made up of having meaning, and purpose, and catabolism of that meaning and purpose.
  • Health is made up of health promotion, health orientation and full integration of all things health in decision making (including considering broader health of our system, such as the environment).  
  • And finally Tribe is made up of creating connection and positive interpersonal processes, having high quality connections, and being able to lean into positive conflict. 

And these are the 18 components that Positive Leaders showcase, demonstrate, and develop according to our research to bring the best out of themselves and those around them.

We identified that with positive leadership:

  • ‘Positive’ means that leaders create a ‘safe’ environment for their team to be themselves and share their worries, speak up, and voice their opinions (Psychological Safety, O’Donovan & McAuliffe, 202) 
  • They go against the grain by not only fixing the ‘weaknesses’ but also thoroughly engaging with ‘strengths’ and ‘resources’ – and using these to address challenges (Niemiec & Pierce, 2021)
  • Positive Leadership is a balanced way of leading that negotiates challenges, conflict, and suffering, with optimal performance, flourishing, and compassionate being. 
  • Positive leadership is a blended and integrated set of intellectual, psychological, emotional, and social resources that leaders can tap into to transform their outcomes and the outcomes of their team, organisation, and society. 

If ever there was ever time we needed for leaders to create safe environments, engage with all our resources, be balanced in the way they lead, and to consider social transformation it is now. 

You can find out more about the book here

To learn more about Cornelia Lucey, FRSA, CPyschol, please visit her LinkedIn page.