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What Makes Positive Leadership Unique?

There are many theories of leadership and many ways of teaching leadership. What does this one offer that is unique? In the following list, we identify a few of the features of this approach to leadership that make it unique, both in general, and for teaching leadership. Most of these features are advantages, but the final feature is both an advantage and a disadvantage of our approach. Therefore, we follow this up with suggestions on how to supplement this approach in courses on leadership.


1. Learning positive leadership focuses learners on events and conventions.

The vast majority of leadership theories and research focus on traits, tendencies, positions, or long-standing relationships. Positive leadership focuses on events, such as individual activities or interactions, and then asks how people might exhibit virtues in those events with more excellence than they would if they were to conform to convention. This approach to initiating leadership changes the learning experience in at least three ways:

  • Honoring the uniqueness of distinct circumstances. When people focus on events and conventions, they have to ask themselves what makes that event unique, including how people are likely to think and act in that event, given the conventions that would typically influence behavior in that event. This kind of attention to uniqueness develops an increased capacity for mindfulness, or reflection-in-action, and the artful performance such mindfulness tends to engender.
  • Integrating learning with real life, in real time. Educational frameworks (such as Bloom’s Taxonomy) suggest that some depth of learning may occur through reading books or listening to lectures on leadership. The depth of one’s learning may increase further when discussing case studies or engaging in experiential exercises in the classroom. Learning achieves even greater depth when these methods are complemented with meaningful projects, extreme programs, or service learning. However, when implementing leadership principles into distinct, everyday life events in which they would have participated anyway, but now try to lead in those same experiences, they develop a greater awareness of the conventions and cues that they tend to encounter, come up with new ways to act in those circumstances and new ways to deal with the social pressures and physical limitations they often encounter, and begin to develop new psychological scripts and more resilient moral character.
  • Creating synergy between what happens in the classroom and out of the classroom. As students collect multiple, personal examples of leadership attempts from their own lives, the material that instructors have for classroom discussion multiplies. “Case” discussions have personal stakes, and instructors can use theory and research to help students see how they might behave differently, or have students induce leadership principles by comparing across student experiences. Further, principles introduced in the classroom can then be applied to subsequent leadership attempts.

2. Learning positive leadership means beginning with an ethical framework.

Most leadership textbooks introduce leadership research to students one theory at a time. The ethics of leadership typically come up as a separate chapter or as sidebars or endnotes. A positive leadership approach starts with the assumption that leadership is inherently an ethical issue because it involves influencing others. We begin with Virtue Ethics and introduce research as it fits within this theory. This enhances our ability to extract practical as well as moral learning from the principles we cover, and creates a unique learning experience in at least four ways:

  • Explicitly focusing on respecting the humanity and dignity of others. Because leadership is about influence, many people approach leadership with the question, “How do I get others to do what I want them to do?” Positive leadership focuses instead on different questions, such as “How might I act more virtuously in this situation?” and “What virtues, enacted in what way, would inspire, elevate, or engender gratitude in the people who care about this situation?” In contrast with the first question, these questions focus less on controlling others, and instead seek to improve one’s own behavior in ways that will motivate others to increase their own virtuousness in ways that may not always be what we expect, and may even be better.
  • Explicitly focusing on respecting one’s own humanity and dignity. Repeated efforts to exhibit virtues with more excellence than we would have exhibited if we had conformed to convention are an investment in oneself. They suggest that we believe in our own potential to learn, grow, and become increasingly better people.
  • Provides a clear, portable tool for generating moral insight. In addition to social pressure, one of the reasons why people tend to conform to convention rather than exceed convention is because we have no idea what alternative courses of actions we could take. When we teach positive leadership, we focus on helping people acquire moral insight: ideas about alternative, morally exceptional actions we could take, and the tools we give them for developing these insights are easy-to-use and applicable across almost any circumstance.
  • Compatibility with other topics of study. If leadership begins with exceptional virtue, then it is applicable in other fields of endeavor as well. Whether a person is teaching finance, marketing, music, engineering, writing, physical therapy, software coding, or any other practical field of learning, a person who practices integrity, patience, resilience, ambition, generosity, or curiosity while engaging in that field of learning will learn more, perform better, and — if they are exceptional about practicing this virtue — is likely to inspire others to similar virtue. Thus, instructors can incorporate positive leadership into most courses of study and amplify the learning that occurs as a result.

3. Learning positive leadership is distinct from, but also compatible with learning how to manage.

As outlined in “What is positive leadership?”, leadership occurs when one or more people follow because they felt inspiration, elevation, admiration, gratitude, or awe in response to the exceptional virtue a person exhibits, while management occurs when one or more people follow because they accept the authority of a person who asks them to do something.

Management and leadership are both influence processes. It is possible to manage without leading, to lead without managing, and also to lead and manage at the same time (e.g., by directing other people to act in ways that exhibit exceptional virtue). However, because the processes are not the same, it is also possible for a person to be good at managing without being a good at leading or to be good at leading without being good at managing. Learning to lead is important whether a person holds a leadership position or not. Learning how to manage becomes important whenever a person holds a position of authority (i.e., a “leadership” position), whether that position is permanent or temporary.

When a person occupies a leadership position, they should learn when and how to direct others’ actions well. Also, it is hard to manage others well if one does not know how to manage their own time and productivity. Finally, simply occupying a leadership position raises issues about which those who occupy the position should know how to handle, such as how the power they hold affects others, how it affects themselves, and how to manage the symbolic impact of one’s leadership position on others. Thus, we recommend complementing leadership development with management development as well.

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