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Practice Positivity

March 28, 2021 Jim Warner
Ryan Quinn, PhD

The Project on Positive Leadership was founded at UofL in 2018 to promote the spread of positive leadership worldwide. From working with UofL Athletics to developing tools and expanding research, the Project has been very active since its inception. It is currently preparing to ramp up its work at the College of Business with a new website and host of offerings. We sat down with the Project’s Academic Director, Ryan Quinn, PhD, to learn more about the Project, the resources it provides, and Ryan’s own passion for positive leadership.

How did you become involved with the study and practice of positive leadership? Can you identify a moment or a mentor that inspired you to promote the practice of positive leadership?

I was always inclined to study this topic. When I began my PhD program, Positive Psychology was just beginning, and Positive Organizational Scholarship was still a few years from beginning. However, I was always interested in leadership. My interest in all-things-positive quickly became apparent as I made decisions about the faculty I would work with based on how positive their research questions were. Within a year or two, I was attending one of the earliest conferences on Positive Psychology and a doctoral seminar on appreciative inquiry. Then I helped organize the first conference on Positive Organizational Scholarship. My personal interest has always been in helping individuals and organizations unleash their potential, and I see positive leadership as a powerful way to do this.

Tell us about the Project at the College of Business. How has the Project evolved over the past few years? What do you see as the goal for the Project at UofL?

Our over-arching mission for the Project on Positive Leadership is to increase positive leadership in the world. Just a day of reading the news may be enough to convince most people that we need that! However, we also have several smaller goals to help us in achieving that. For the first two-and-a-half years, we have been focusing on developing an initial suite of teaching tools to help people develop positive leadership, and supporting our Rechter Fellows in conducting research on positive leadership. Now that we are finally launching our new website and suite of tools, we are hoping to expand our impact through broader collaborations, research outreach, a workshop series, and other new initiatives, in addition to continuing our previous initiatives.

What can visitors expect to discover on the Project’s website?

The beautiful new website created by the college’s fabulous marketing team has the suite of instructional tools I mentioned above, which includes:

  • Two-dozen free instructional tools developed by the Project on Positive Leadership.
  • Instructions for accessing and using the Leadership Amplifier smartphone application. Although every tool in our suite can be used individually in any instructional setting, the Leadership Amplifier app also unifies the teaching tools into a complementary learning system. Because it is online, it enables students to continue learning during a pandemic or between classroom experiences during non-pandemic times.
  • An instructors’ manual with ideas about how to use all of these tools in a learning system.
  • Suggestions of other great tools we like, provided by outside organizations. We also invite users to share their favorite tools that we can include on the website or in our LinkedIn community.
  • The research upon which we base our leadership model. We invite users to engage on our LinkedIn community about this or additional research.
  • Access to University of Louisville Executive Education programs on positive leadership.
  • Ongoing news about the work of the Project on Positive Leadership.
  • Introductions to our affiliated faculty, staff, and Rechter fellows.

You mention the Leadership Amplifier. Can you give us some more details about the app? How does it work? Do you need to be taking our course in positive leadership to use it?

The app is designed to create communities of practice that improve their leadership together in real-time. It is actually intended to be used outside of class, or in-between classes, when you are engaged in real leadership opportunities. Leadership Amplifier helps you to select events from your calendar in which you can practice leadership. The app walks you through a series of questions specifically designed to help you acquire insight into how you can lead, and encourages you to seek and use feedback from the other members of your learning community. It also reports out on your leadership efforts as well as sharing others’ leadership reports.

The app amplifies people’s leadership development for two reasons. First, it turns leadership opportunities into deliberate practice through planning and reflection. Second, it enables people to learn from others’ leadership experiences as well as their own. The app is free to install on your phone, but there is a subscription charge for setting up communities.

Beyond the Project offering these resources, you are also working with Executive Education on courses offering a positive leadership certificate. Tell us about that program.

The positive leadership certificate program is a multi-week course in which participants gather for one morning a week to learn in-classroom leadership concepts and then use the Leadership Amplifier app between classes to practice what they are learning, on the job, as a community of learners. According to research, a common problem with training programs is that people tend to retain a surprisingly small percentage of the concepts covered in classes and implement even less of what they learn. By structuring the class this way, participants will learn concepts in the classroom and hold each other accountable for practicing leadership principles between classes, amplifying their retention and leadership.

How do you think positive leadership can impact a person’s personal and professional life? What do you want those interested in positive leadership to take away from the Project?

Positive leadership is, at its core, about seeing the world in a better way, and then inspiring others to help us make that better world a reality. This sounds good, but people often have blind spots when actually trying to live by a statement like this. One example of this kind of blind spot is what I call “ethical sufficiency.” We tend to think of ethics in either/or categories. Something is ethical, or it is not. As a result, those of us who wish to be ethical often stop once we have achieved what we think is ethical, and we never realize that there is so much more. In fact, once we move from an ethical sufficiency frame to an ethical opportunity frame, a whole new world opens up to us. We see ways to improve our organizations, our communities, and our lives that simply would not occur to us when we are only thinking about ethics in terms of sufficiency. Many of these opportunities are simple or small, but some can lead entire organizations to create new markets, transform cultures, or see previously unseen performance improvement opportunities. A major part of positive leadership is about discovering the opportunities that come when we want excellence in the virtues which we might otherwise ignore or only seek adequacy in.

Another example of a blind spot is in how we bracket the events of our lives. People—and especially managers—tend to subconsciously break their lives into problems, never realizing that there are other ways to break down their lives that might be more productive. For example, we can break our lives into moments, events, or episodes instead. When people seek excellence in the virtues, they try to live in the moments or events or episodes of their lives; they often see new ways in which small moments can have big impacts, some problems that seemed large dissolve or become less relevant. They acquire insights into their projects and strategies. Personally, I find that as I put the principles into practice in my own life, my relationships become richer, my work becomes more effective, and I enjoy life more.

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