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What is Positive Leadership?

We offer here a definition of positive leadership because those who use our instructional tools need to understand how we use the phrase if they want to get the most out of our tools. However, we also recognize that there are many definitions of the word “leadership,” and many definitions of the word “positive.” As such, we should not expect there to be only one correct definition for the phrase “positive leadership.” People can define these terms differently without being wrong and use them in constructive ways. In fact, even if people define this phrase differently, we can still learn from each other’s perspective, as long as we are clear about what our definitions are and how they are different.

We used three criteria to help us define positive leadership. Our first criterion is that our definition must be useful to people who are trying to make the world a better place every day. Second, our definition must not be susceptible to most of the criticisms that scholars make about leadership research. Third, our definition should help us be clear about how to achieve our mission of increasing positive leadership. The definition we propose here meets each of these criteria.

Before we share our definition of positive leadership, we first define the word “leadership,” recognizing that leadership may not always be positive. We explain how this definition addresses scholarly criticisms. Then we define positive leadership and explain what makes leadership positive.


Leadership a three-step process of social influence in which:

  1. one person exhibits at least one virtue with more excellence than he or she would have exhibited if he or she had conformed to convention,
  2. at least one other person feels an other-praising emotion—such as respect, awe, gratitude, inspiration, elevation, or admiration in response to that action, and
  3. chooses to follow that leader’s action by imitating, complying, or acting in a way that is complementary.

Some terms in this definition require further explanation. For example, a virtue is a standard of moral excellence, such as courage, compassion, integrity, or humility. Actions vary in the excellence with which they exhibit virtues. For example, an action may be cowardly, somewhat courageous, courageous, a little too courageous, or downright reckless. Any given action can be rated for the excellence of virtue it exhibits. Thus, when a person tells her direct report what to do, she may, for example, exhibit too little compassion, excellent honesty, and too much curiosity.

People exhibit virtues in their actions. Some actions are unique and intentional. Others are common and taken-for-granted. A convention is a taken-for-granted, repeated pattern of action, such as a routine, procedure, norm, strategy, policy, custom, or tradition. As Figure 1 depicts, a convention is not part of the leadership process, but is a necessary condition for defining leadership, because a person is not leading if they are just following convention. Even if other people follow them, they are still not leading because they are not showing people new ways to act. The other people are simply following someone who is, themselves, following. When other people follow a person who is conforming to convention that person may be managing, but he or she is not leading.

Management can also be understood as a three-step process of social influence, but the first and second steps of the management process are different from the leadership process. In the first step of management, one person arranges other people’s actions by asking them to do specific things. This request may or may not conform to convention. In the second step, other people perceive the first person’s request as legitimate because of the first person’s authority. That authority may be based on laws, hierarchy, expertise, but whatever its source, authority is a form of convention to which people conform. The request itself may or may not be conventional, but the enactment of authority is conventional. If the request exhibits virtue with more excellence than would have been exhibited if convention had been followed, then the request may initiate leadership as well as management at the same time. Leadership and management are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Leadership, then, requires forging a new, non-conventional path for people to follow. As Figure 1 illustrates by depicting conventions outside of the dotted box labeled “leadership,” conventions are necessary conditions against which leadership occurs, but they are not part of the leadership process. Leadership begins when someone exhibits more virtue than they would have exhibited if they had conformed to convention. In fact (as the arrow with the negative sign between convention and excellence in leader virtue suggests, people who participate in conventions tend to pressure each other to not deviate from the convention. Thus, conventions make leadership less likely, but leadership only occurs when a person who exhibits exceptional virtue does so independent of following convention. A person may exhibit excellence in a virtue while following a convention if the actions that make up that convention involve exhibiting excellence in virtues, but in this case leadership does not occur because the convention already involved exhibiting excellence.

Figure 1

An illustration may be helpful. Consider a story told by a physician-manager in a health clinic. She had an employee who had been a good performer, but his performance deteriorated over time. She tried talking to him about his performance, but he kept saying he would improve and never did. She began to feel pressure to put him on a performance plan with the possibility of firing him. However, as she considered this, she first decided to ask him if anything was amiss in his personal life. In some organizations, a question like this would not be a big deal, but in her organization, there was a strong norm (i.e., a convention) against people asking about each other’s personal lives. Thus, it felt like a big risk to her to violate this norm. She did it, however, because she cared about the employee and wanted him to succeed (i.e., excellence in leader virtue). Her employee could sense her genuine concern and recognized that she was taking a risk for him, which made him feel grateful (i.e., an other-praising emotion), rather than feel the irritation, discomfort, or stress that people often feel when others violate conventions. Because of this gratitude, he also violated the norm by complying with her request to tell her about his personal life, when normally he would not do that at work (i.e., following).

If the story ended there, it would be sufficient to illustrate leadership. One person deviated from convention by exhibiting compassion with an excellence that she would not have exhibited if she had conformed to convention. Another person felt an other-praising emotion and followed by complying with her request. That is leadership. In this case the story also has a happy ending. The employee told the physician-manager about how his previously-wonderful son had suddenly become rebellious and embittered over the past few months, and the stress was having a negative effect on everything else in his life and his wife’s life as well. The physician-manager suggested some questions for the employee to consider, which enabled him to approach his son differently. When he did, he learned that his son’s rebelliousness was occurring because he was being bullied and was afraid to tell anyone about it. The employee helped his son in a number of ways, the son dealt with the bullies and returned to being pleasant again, and the employee’s performance at work improved again.

It is important to note that the constructs of “followers’ other-praising emotions” and “following” are inside the dotted box in Figure 1. They are part of the leadership process. In other words, if a person exhibits a virtue with excellence, but no one follows, leadership may have been attempted, but it did not occur. Leadership is a relational phenomenon. You cannot lead if no one follows. The following can be immediate and brief, but it must occur to say that leadership has occurred.

Positive Leadership

The story about the physician-manager and her employee is an example of positive leadership, as well as an example of leadership. Leadership is positive, we argue, when it is virtuous. A virtue is a single standard of excellence, such as courage, compassion, integrity, or humility, but virtuousness occurs when a person exhibits excellence in all of the virtues that are relevant to a given situation rather than just one or some of those virtues. Not all virtues are relevant to every situation, but multiple, distinct virtues are relevant to almost every situation. For example, when a firefighter runs into a burning building, that firefighter may need the courage to enter, the wisdom to be well-prepared for the threats she will face, the compassion to help the people who are caught within, and the humility to admit what is beyond her capacity. In contrast, when a manager needs to give negative feedback to an employee, that manager may need candor to be direct and truthful with the employee, compassion to deliver the truth in a way that is sensitive to the employee’s feelings, curiosity to figure out why the employee’s performance is suffering, and creativity to figure out what can be done about it. Each situation requires a distinct set of virtues, applied appropriately to the particulars of that situation and the interests of the people who care about the situation, and exhibited with excellence.

Figure 2

In the story of the physician-manager, the physician-manager exhibited virtuousness because she not only exhibited compassion, but also courage (by taking the risk of asking the employee about his personal life), trust (by believing the employee was still capable of meeting high expectations and must have some reason for not doing so), honesty (by not hiding from the fact that the employee’s performance was poor), curiosity (a desire to know how to fix the problem), and wisdom (an understanding of how to help them employee address the problem with his son). Thus, she exhibited excellence in multiple, relevant virtues.

If the physician-manager had exhibited excellence in each of the distinct virtues that were relevant to this situation, but the employee had not followed, then leadership would not have occurred. If the employee had followed, but had not exhibited excellence in each of the distinct virtues that were relevant to his situation, it would have been leadership, but it would not have been positive leadership. Positive leadership occurs when a leader and follower(s) all exhibit excellence in all of the distinct virtues that are relevant to their situation.

This is a high standard. It requires leaders and followers to both exhibit all relevant virtues in their actions within a given situation. Therefore, positive leadership may be a relatively uncommon occurrence. However, we also believe that positive leadership exists along a continuum. Within any given interaction, more or less leadership may occur, and that leadership may be more or less positive. The actions of all parties involved may be closer to or further away from the ideal of virtuousness.

Why This Definition?

We argued that this definition is useful for engaging in leadership and improving leadership skills, and also addresses scholarly criticisms. It is useful for engaging in leadership because this definition makes leadership accessible to anyone. In almost any situation, any person can find ways to exhibit at least one virtue with more excellence than they would have if they conformed to convention. A CEO can exhibit better-than-conventional wisdom while planning a corporate acquisition, a front-line worker can exhibit better-than-conventional courage when advocating for an operational improvement to her boss, and a teenager can exhibit better-than-conventional compassion when she sees a peer being left out of an activity.

This definition is also useful because it enables managers to see how leadership is different from management, and thus how they can get better at both management and leadership. A manager can improve at managing by becoming more efficient and effective at directing the activities of others by learning more about when to direct who in what ways to do what things in response to what situations with what kinds of support and for what reasons. That same manager can also improve at leading by exhibiting excellence in wisdom or humility when figuring out how to match situations and requests, integrity by being willing to do the things she asks of others, honesty in how she provides direction to employees who have underperformed, or compassion when requests or results are painful for people. A good definition helps us know what to learn.

Finally, this definition is robust to many of the criticisms that scholars make of the leadership literature. Unlike many definitions of leadership, this definition respects the agency of the followers as well as the leaders by suggesting that leadership does not occur unless people follow. Wise leaders will understand that under this definition, their attempts at leadership are likely to fail unless they are motivated by a respect for those who can choose for themselves what they see as virtuous and whether they want to follow it. Some definitions of leadership also assume that leadership involves a person’s tendencies to act a certain way over time, or that it can only be exhibited by people in specific positions. In contrast, by defining leadership as a process involving a single action, cognition, and response, we allow for the possibility that a person may initiate leadership over or over, and may do so from a position of authority, but we also open up other possibilities, including:

  • A person in authority being a manager but not a leader
  • A person who often exhibits exceptional virtue falling short sometimes, or a person who generally fails to exhibit exceptional virtue sometimes rising above expectations and leading others
  • A person without a position of authority leading
  • Different people leading at different times in the same group or organization

The possibilities are endless for what could happen. Even more importantly, however, because we define leadership in terms of virtue, what is really exciting is the possibility that as we increase positive leadership as we have defined it here, we make the world a better place.

Next: What Makes Positive Leadership Unique?

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