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How Do I Teach Positive Leadership? : University of Louisville – College of Business Skip to main content

How Do I Teach Positive Leadership?

The positive leadership development model, depicted below, illustrates our recommended process for teaching and learning positive leadership. It illustrates a cycle of learning which, if people iterate through, will develop within them the ability to exhibit positive leadership. We recommend using this model to build courses or modules within courses on positive leadership. Class sessions and assignments within these courses or modules would then address different constructs in this model. We explain the constructs from this model in the text below, including some initial suggestions for how to think about incorporating these constructs into courses. More detail about the practical mechanics of implementing these constructs into classes can be found in the subsequent web pages.


Aristotle used the word, phronesis, to describe the intuitive way in which people can know what the right thing to do is in a given situation. Modern English-speaking scholars translate this word into “practical wisdom” when they use it to describe an enduring character trait, or as “moral insight” when they use it to describe the wisdom (or solution) needed for one, specific situation. Positive leadership requires people to practice acquiring moral insights again and again, improving their ability to acquire moral insight over time. However, wise individuals also assume that every situation is unique, and that there are things to learn in every situation if one wishes to act virtuously. Therefore, a fundamental component of wisdom is the humility to recognize that one should never stop learning.

People develop wisdom as they analyze their circumstances, integrate the knowledge they glean from their analysis into a meaningful, holistic perspective that helps them to understand the best way to act (or not act), and to alter their beliefs in any ways necessary to increase the motivation for acting in the right way. In a leadership program, much or most of the time spent in classroom activities is devoted to enhancing a person’s wisdom, and a smaller proportion is typically devoted to skill development (the other half of this model). In contrast, out-of-class activities tend to be more focused on skill development, while a smaller (but still significant) portion of the time is devoted to developing wisdom.


Wisdom helps people know how to act; skill helps people to act well. Skill matters for moral action because the right action, executed poorly, will not be virtuous. For example, a lawyer may know the right arguments to make for pursuing justice in the courtroom or a doctor may know exactly what should be done when conducting a surgery, but if the lawyer does not argue well or the doctor is not skilled at surgery, then their actions are unlikely to be virtuous.

Skill is developed through practice. Practice requires action, feedback, adjustment, and repetition. Some of this can and should happen in classroom activities, where stakes are relatively low and instructors can cultivate safe environments. Our repository of teaching tools contains experiential exercises for the classroom and invites you to tell us about other exercises as well. However, skills learned in safe settings may not always transfer to circumstances with performance demands or high pressure. This is why we developed the Leadership Amplifier mobile phone app. Performance under pressure requires performing under pressure.


Exhibiting virtue with more excellence than people exhibit when they conform to convention requires people to think differently, and usually more complexly, than they do when they conform to convention. In other words, they need to analyze the situation. Analysis requires an understanding of abstract concepts such as what virtues are, the patterns of behavior that define those virtues, the dimensionality of those virtues, and how virtues interrelate: these concepts are the domain of Virtue Ethics. Analysis also requires an understanding of the concrete details of each situation, including the conventions in which people are participating, the challenges and opportunities that make this particular instantiation of the conventions unique, the people who care about how this situation turns out and their perspectives, and so on.

Analysis occurs when people apply abstract concepts to concrete details to generate insight. The quality of the insight depends on the accuracy of the abstract concepts and the concrete details, and also on the logic and comprehensiveness with which the abstract concepts are applied to the concrete details. People can learn about abstract concepts and concrete details through readings, lectures, or research. However, the application of abstract concepts to concrete situations requires more interactive teaching and learning methods such as case discussions or projects that require students to apply concepts in their lives. Our repository of instructional tools has many examples of readings and case discussions, and the Leadership Amplifier app helps people walk through the application of virtue concepts to people’s concrete life situations.


Once people analyze their circumstances, they need to integrate their insights. For example, a person can generate insights by considering the different perspectives that each relevant person or group has on the situation and by considering the different virtues that are relevant to a situation and how they apply. However, once people have these insights, they have to figure out how to integrate these insights into a single action or set of actions. This often requires creativity. Again, this can be practiced in case studies or classroom exercises such as those found in our repository of instructional tools, but it is also part of what people do when they use Leadership Amplifier to come up with insights, and they have to figure out how to execute them in their lives.


Sometimes, acquiring insights and integrating those insights is sufficient to motivate people to act on those insights. However, this is not always the case. Positive leadership involves deviating from convention. This often means that people who deviate may be engaging a new activity or engaging an activity in a new way, and doing new things is intimidating for some people. Also, deviating from convention sometimes brings ire, irritation, punishment, ostracism, or other negative consequences from people who do not want others to deviate from the conventions. Other obstacles or de-motivators may also exist, and so people often need to learn how to communicate their desires if they want to exhibit virtues with more excellence than they would have exhibited if they had conformed to convention.

Instructors can help people educate their desires. Three ways to do this are by helping people come up with reasons for why they should exhibit virtue, specific plans for how they will exhibit virtue, and greater honesty about what might not be fully virtuous about how they are currently doing things.

Reasons educate desires because people typically treat values and virtues as truisms: “They are good by definition, so of course I should do them.” However, when we face social pressure or other obstacles, truisms can lose their motivating force, and reasons increase our motivation in the face of pressure and obstacles.

Specificity plays a similar role, forcing us to come up with ideas of how we might be successful in our efforts. This reduces doubt and indecision when the time for action comes.

Unflinching honesty also influences motivation. It creates cognitive dissonance by showing us ways in which we are not as good as we want to perceive ourselves and, if that honesty is unflinching, we cannot rationalize it away, so we become motivated to change as the only option for reducing our dissonance and restoring positive beliefs about ourselves.

Instructors can use class discussions to push students to come up with reasons, specificity, and honesty. Students who use Leadership Amplifier can also encourage each other in similar ways.


Learning positive leadership requires practice. Some of this practice can occur in the classroom. For example, instructors can use experiential exercises such as those found in our repository of instructional tools as opportunities for practice in a setting where instructors have some control over the safety that students feel as they engage in the activities. Instructors can also work with students to create norms in which practicing virtues is part of how class is conducted, no matter what the method of teaching is at any given moment. For example, students can practice courage and generosity in what they say and how they say it in class. They can practice patience, gratitude, and compassion when they listen to other students’ contributions in class. They can practice ambition and resilience and curiosity in their attempts to learn. The more instructors make practice of all kinds explicit  in class, the more learning opportunities there will be.

Real-Life Implementation

Practice in safe settings is important, but if people never apply what they learn in their everyday lives, self-awareness and skill development will be limited.

The Leadership Amplifier app is designed to help people implement what they are learning about positive leadership in their everyday lives. Of course, it is possible to practice without Leadership Amplifier. However, the app provides structure, integration with users’ calendars, support and accountability from one’s community, and many other helpful features as well.

Previous: Why Teach Positive Leadership? Next: How Do I Use Mobile Phone Applications To Teach Management and Leadership?

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