The power of positive leadership

Feb 09, 2021
Joanne Hession explains the concept of positive leadership and shares five strategies to help you develop this increasingly vital skill.

I remember the financial crisis of 2008. I remember scrambling to try to keep my two businesses afloat.

I remember thinking, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, if I can get through this, I can cope with anything.

Across the world, businesses were faced with incredible challenges. It was difficult for everyone. Employees took wage cuts, worked long hours, found new markets, and sought innovative solutions to keep their businesses going until things picked up. Some businesses did not make it while others did. Thankfully, we weathered the storm.

Why did some businesses survive while others did not? There are many reasons, but a couple of years ago, I came across research conducted by Dr Fred Kiel in Harvard Business Review (as well as in Dr Kiel’s book, Return on Character).

In 2015, Dr Kiel looked at whether business performance has any relationship with the CEO’s character. He asked employees in over 100 organisations to rate their chief executive on integrity, compassion, forgiveness and responsibility. Based on respondents’ feedback, he gave the CEOs an overall score, which he called their ‘character score’.

Then, he looked at the return on assets (ROA) of the companies they led to see whether there was any relationship between character scores and business performance. The categorical answer was: yes, there was.

The CEOs rated highest for their character score invariably led the companies with the best performance. The five highest-ranked leaders led companies with a ROA of close to 10% over the period. The companies of CEOs with a medium character score had an average ROA of about 5%. Interestingly, the leaders with the lowest character scores had ROA rates of around 2%.

For me, this finding echoes the work of psychologist, Prof. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan. Prof. Peterson carried out an analysis of the common factors among US soldiers who returned from difficult tours of duty with higher resilience levels than others.

As he analysed the data he noted that, aside from resilience, soldiers who progressed to leadership positions in the military also had the highest scores on ‘strength of character’ indicators such as honesty, hope, bravery, industry, and teamwork. These traits seemed to be most important in progressing to positions of leadership in the military.

This research resonated with me deeply. I have always believed that the most important aspect of leadership lies in character, and both Dr Kiel and Prof. Peterson confirmed this. But more importantly, Dr Kiel’s research demonstrated that positive character attributes directly correlate with better leadership, all the way down to the bottom line.
The central point is this: when things are really difficult, as they were in 2008, character is central to how people respond. Little did I know back then just how much more challenging the world would become 12 years later, and just how vital positive leadership would be.

The role of influence

Leadership is an interesting concept. Ask most people to name a leader and they will invariably choose a CEO, politician or perhaps a team captain. Whatever the context, it will almost always be the person at the top.

Bottom-line results are often why one person is chosen over another: X was in charge when Rabona United won the league; or Y was the CEO when Tech Co. Inc. increased its share price three years in a row, for example.

There are undoubtedly great leaders among these positional leaders. Yet I cannot help thinking that this notion of leaders as those at the top of their environments misses the point about what leadership is and where we can find it.

Leadership is influence. If you influence others, you are leading them. Positive leadership is therefore about positive influence. Whether it is termed ‘authentic’, ‘transformational’, ‘charismatic’ or ‘servant’ leadership, positive leadership is influence that emerges because someone cares, empowers and supports others and because their behaviour or character provides an example that others use to forge their futures.
I have been in the privileged position of running several businesses for over 20 years now. As founder and CEO, I have, in a literal sense, led those businesses. But just as importantly throughout those 20 years, numerous others have led me.

When one of my staff saw a potential niche market, offering and explaining his findings, I was influenced to change our business direction slightly. When one of our technical experts saw a more efficient way to allow our teams to collaborate, I followed her lead to progress the overall business vision.

In purely business terms, I may be founder and CEO, but I am well aware that there are times when my role is to lead, and there are times when my role is to take my lead from others. 

This is a liberating and empowering idea. It doesn’t matter what our role is, and it doesn’t matter whether we are running a business or are the newest recruit through the door. Every one of us leads at certain times and follows at others. We all encounter moments every day when our actions, words, or behaviour might influence others. When this happens, others are effectively taking their lead from us, and we are leading them. Equally, we are all influenced by others and, regardless of our seniority, we need to maintain the humility to recognise that leadership is a shared endeavour.

When everyone within a business understands that how they act will potentially influence and lead others, and when they are given the space and permission to exercise this leadership role, the benefits are immeasurable. Employee satisfaction increases as strict hierarchical structures gain flexibility; individual ownership and responsibility for behaviour and performance rise; and the sense of mutual collaboration within teams and across departments and functions grows exponentially.

Beyond the professional realm, we can be leaders in all walks of life. In our families, we might have children, siblings, or parents who are influenced by us. Among our friends, we are constantly influencing and being influenced. This places a responsibility very squarely on our shoulders – if we are continually being asked to lead, how can we ensure that we are leading well? We all need an understanding of what good leadership should look like.

What ‘good’ leadership looks like

Good leadership has nothing to do with control or power. We can say that we are leading well only when we have exerted positive influence, whether we are aware of it or not. Even if we are not in a leadership position, we should aim to provide a positive example in how we lead ourselves and potentially influence others in a positive direction also.
We cannot force others to follow us; we can only try to behave in a way that others will choose to follow. This means focusing on building our character in order to develop our leadership capacity.

As a good starting point in building positive leadership, it is worthwhile to consider five main areas:

1. Reflect on your values. Positive leaders are clear about what they stand for. To develop your positive leadership capacity, you must understand your values. Make this a written exercise. Dig deep. What is it that matters to you? What are the boundaries that you will not cross, regardless of the pressures you might be under? What do you want to contribute to your business, community and family? Take time to reflect on your values because they are the yardstick by which others will measure you, and you will measure yourself.

2. Reflect on your behaviour. Few things are as powerful as seeing someone with deep integrity, who has the courage to be accountable and is willing to stand up for what they believe in. Unfortunately, few of us are as consistent as we would like to be. We all fall below the standards we expect of ourselves occasionally. Allow yourself to reflect regularly on your behaviour in light of your values. Be honest with yourself. Do you have higher expectations of others than you do of yourself? Have you judged others by their actions, but judged yourself by your intentions? Review your actions and behaviour over the previous days or weeks. How do you feel you have lived up to your values? Have you led as positively as you intended? How has your behaviour impacted on your team, colleagues, and those around you?

3. Reflect on your relationships. To influence another, for them to choose to take their lead from us, we must create a real and meaningful connection. People respond to genuine connection. If we want to build our positive leadership, we have to focus on the most basic (but frequently, the most difficult) things: to truly listen to what others are saying; to genuinely understand their perspectives or concerns; to treat everyone with respect and fairness. Assess how you have performed here. What could you do better?

4. Decide how you can improve. One of the most inspiring leadership characteristics is seeing someone who makes the most of what they have and works to maximise their abilities. Unless we learn to give our best and work to improve continually, we have little authority to influence or lead others. When you reflect on your behaviour and identify where you have fallen below your own standards, set yourself a finite and measurable action that will force you to address that shortcoming, even if it is only in a small way. Hold yourself accountable.

5. Repeat. Building positive leadership character is like going to the gym. It needs to become a part of your life to have a meaningful and lasting impact. Don’t try to change overnight. Instead, focus on making the steps above part of the fabric of your routine. Just like ‘peace’, in Yeats’ poem, change “comes dropping slow”, but small actions done consistently can create great change.
Joanne Hession is Founder and CEO of LIFT Ireland, a not-for-profit initiative to increase
the level of positive leadership in Ireland.