A Thousand Leaders, One Process

In a recent meeting with a group of managers at a large telecommunications organization, one employee commented that he always felt like he knew good leadership when he saw it and tried to emulate it. However, it wasn’t until taking the Positive Leadership course I teach that he realized he had a hard time defining those positive practices, because he did not have the vocabulary to describe good leadership.

His problem is not unique. One of the most consistent challenges that leaders face is the inability to articulate positive practices in a way that allows them to spread throughout the organization.  The result is an ad hoc approach to leadership that has more in common with superstition and hero worship than best practices for a process that is vital to a company’s success.  This particular manager’s journey from “I know it when I see it” to understanding and implementing a process for positive leadership is a development that I see in every running of the Positive Leadership course.

Myth-ing the Point

The first step to creating a spreadable, actionable process for better leadership is confronting the myth of the lone heroic leader.  Leadership books, articles and biographies are often party to this myth. Take Steve Jobs for example.  Most people associate Apple’s success with the charismatic, savvy, and magnetic vision of Jobs. Those who delve further into the myth may seek to emulate his near-tyrannical leadership style, demanding management practices, or authoritarian control of design hoping to capture and bottle some of his success. But in the end, being Steve Jobs is not a leadership process or even a sure way to achieve success.

Psychologists and researchers take a different approach.  They study exceptional examples of leaders to find commonalities with an eye to determining what successful leadership looks like as a process rather than a personality trait or platitude. Although iconic leaders provide us with examples to emulate, leadership as a process begins with the understanding that our capacity as a leader is inextricably tied to the engagement of our teams.  We become more successful as we intentionally focus on spreading a positive atmosphere; our focus goes from completing tasks to developing people through meaningful work. Whenever you empower employees to feel they are making an impact in their organization or in their work, exciting things happen.

And this is very good news because it means that positive leadership can be learned. At the heart of it is empowerment, and one of the most important ways that leaders can help spread positive practices. Empowerment is comprised of five basic components:

  1. Trust: Leaders and employees need to believe each other.
  2. Self-efficacy: Employees need to know what is expected of them.
  3. Self-Determination: Employees need to be able to make some decisions on their own.
  4. Personal Consequence: Employees need to know how their work affects their co-workers and the organization.
  5. Meaning: Employees should know why their work is important and what good it will do for the world.

leadershipumPower to the People

During the Positive Leadership course I have been amazed at the transition of some managers from focusing on their own development and personality traits, to implementing a process for making the people around them more successful, energized and positive. One participant in the course shared that she previously struggled with how to define empowerment, but she now felt equipped to not only articulate it but to implement it in her team. Modeling positive leadership removes the burden of thinking that you have to be the heroic leader and instead focuses the attention on building the vocabulary and skills needed to implement positive practices.

In the end, Jobs and other heroic leaders are just one personality among thousands that contribute to the success or failure of a firm.  And while the heroic, inspiring leader is a trope that will probably exist for the next millennia, today managers need more to make an impact. They need a proven process.

CorpU and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business have partnered to create the Positive Leadership course along with lead faculty, Kim Cameron. The Ross School of Business is known for leadership development, groundbreaking entrepreneurship, and a commitment to sustainability, social impact, and positive business. Ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek as a top 10 MBA program since 1988, Ross’ world-class faculty bring cutting-edge knowledge to students to help them succeed in today’s rapidly changing environment.

Jon McNaughtanJon McNaughtan is a Research Associate at the University of Michigan where he focuses on the intersection of employee well being, sense of purpose, and how those constructs affect work performance and life satisfaction.  While at Michigan he has worked with aspiring corporate and educational leaders to identify and cultivate positive practices within their organization in order to expand the capacity of both their organization and employees. He has published on the topic of positive leadership and organizational culture, including most recently co-authoring the article, “Positive Organizational Change,” with Dr. Kim Cameron in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2014.  McNaughtan is also a Research Analyst and Adjunct Faculty in the Leadership and Counseling Department at Eastern Michigan University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Higher Education at the University of Michigan, and he earned his MA from Stanford University and a BS from Southern Utah University.