Positively leadership

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, trained as a psychiatrist before becoming an award-winning teacher and researcher whose work bridges the domains of leadership, adult development and experiential learning.

‘I do a lot of work with senior executives and I always ask, how many of you stress because things aren’t going in the direction you really wish them to go or aren’t going there fast enough for you? And all of them raise their hands. Then I ask, how many of you beat yourself up for it, stand in front of the mirror and say, maybe that’s because I’m not as good a leader as I should be? And all raise their hand again,’ he says. ‘We keep telling people that they can lead and be happy, but the reality of leadership is often different. Acknowledging the tension built into leadership may help get us leaders who are more capable to accept limitations without losing aspiration.’

Leadership is difficult, demanding and draining. Successful leaders have developed survival strategies which enable them to survive the slings and arrows of leadership fortune. Physical and mental support and sustenance are increasingly part and parcel of leadership. Churchill made do with a cigar and a bottle of brandy; today’s leaders are likely to have fitness and performance coaches. Research from Yahoo Finance found that 85 percent of CEOs say they exercise daily; 70 percent begin their day with a workout of some kind while 15 percent exercise between meetings or during a lunch hour. And the lunch hour may be a stretch: other research suggests that executives take an average lunch break of thirty-five minutes and work through lunch three days a week.

‘After ten years working with business leaders, one clear thing I’ve learned is that sustainable high performance can only be created when you integrate daily strategies in four areas: mindset, nutrition, movement and recovery,’ says Scott Peltin, co-author of Sink, Float, or Swim, chief performance officer at Tignum and a former firefighter:

How focused, confident, empathetic, or open are you when you are exhausted, over-stressed, sleep deprived, starving, or even after sitting all day without moving? Just as in executing your business strategy, your personal performance strategy is loaded with choices you will face every day where you will either become more of a sustainable high performer or less. It’s a no-brainer: think of the benefits (at work and at home) of making significantly better choices.

Given all these demands, it is just as well that leaders tend to have a positive outlook. Indeed, all the successful leaders we have encountered have a positive and optimistic view of the world. They are not unrealistic, but simply prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. As Napoleon observed: ‘A leader is a dealer in hope’.

‘I’m very optimistic,’ Sir Peter Lampl told us. ‘My experience of business is that most people, if properly motivated, led and incentivized, will do a good job. All the companies I bought were underperforming businesses, losing money or making poor returns. I didn’t go in and fire a bunch of people, because most people will do a good job. What I tried to do is to help them do a better job. And I think that’s what we’ve got to do with teachers.’

Positivity is much in vogue thanks to the rise of positive psychology. Now, it is increasingly applied to leadership. Among those in the vanguard of positive leadership is Lee Newman of Spain’s IE Business School. He suggests a new approach to leadership designed to achieve behavioral advantage – ‘an advantage achieved by building an organization of individuals and teams that think and perform better, at all levels’. In his positivity armory are such things as yoga and mindfulness.

Sustainable competitive advantage is no longer attainable in the conventional sense, argues Newman, a former tech entrepreneur and McKinsey & Co consultant. However, it is possible to obtain behavioral advantage. This can be done, he contends, by taking the latest research and thinking in behavioral economics and positive psychology, and applying it to improve individual and organizational performance.

According to Newman, there are three main elements to positive leadership. The first is mindware training which helps leaders understand their decision-making thought processes, and enables them to think better. The second element focuses on building up people’s strengths, rather than on improving their weaknesses. Companies should be, says Newman, ‘identifying the strengths of their people and teams and then designing the work around them. It’s a win–win: better for the wellbeing of employees and better for the bottom line of the organization’.

The third aspect of positive leadership that the leader needs to attend to is professional fitness. Leaders must ensure that they and their followers apply their learning in their everyday work.

There are, of course, skeptics who suggest that leaders should by their very nature be able to look after themselves. This is true up to a point. But it is clear that leadership demands physical and mental fortitude and dexterity. These can and must be worked at in order to improve.

‘I have pursued the idea that the solution to the work/life dilemma is leadership and that the heart of leadership is really the whole person,’ says Stew Friedman, Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He trained as an organizational psychologist, was founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and is also founding director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project. ‘You can advance your leadership capacity, performance and results at work and elsewhere by bringing together the different parts of your life; integrating them in an intelligent way that works for you. Behind this is the notion that each person can emerge as more of a leader than he or she currently is. And that leadership can be learned, practiced and developed, like any performing art or a sport, even if it cannot be taught.’

What is clear is that leadership is not an occasional act or something requiring only part of your brain and energy. It is demanding, yes, but demanding of the whole person rather than a neat compartment marked ‘leadership’. Because of this, looking after the whole person is essential for healthy and effective leadership.


We are long-term fans of the work of Stew Friedman. To find out more about his work look up www.totalleadership.org.

Lee Newman’s website is www.leenewman.com.

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