Cultivating purposefully positive leadership

  • The path to power in leadership is paradoxical — while positive and prosocial behaviours have proven to be the most reliable means of gaining power, the ultimate achievement of power introduces forces that can turn good people nasty.
  • The influence of positive energisers offers a positive countervailing force that can be activated in organisations.
  • Focusing leadership development in areas that enhance self-reflection and empathic engagement can facilitate positive leadership in organisations… and help avoid the pitfalls of ‘the power paradox’.

Small planets with various words hanging off them

With the banking royal commission revealing a litany of poor leadership behaviours across some of Australia’s largest financial institutions, the need for positive leadership practices seems more pressing than ever. Yet sustained positivity in leadership is not as widespread as its intuitive and common sense appeal might suggest it should be. The attainment of power introduces often surreptitious challenges that must be acknowledged and carefully addressed, if we are to successfully negotiate the phenomenon that is ‘the power paradox’.

A positive path to power

Research has shown that individuals gain power when they enhance the welfare of others. Lifting the wellbeing of the collective, at the expense of self-focus, sees the individuals who do so reach the pinnacles of their group. While this positive and prosocial finding may seem at odds with the more individualistic and sometimes Machiavellian case studies that can capture our attention, the evidence is that this type of positivity in contribution is a far more viable long-term strategy. Power, and related fields such as social perception and negotiating morality, have been long-term research interests of Professor Dacher Keltner, founding director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. He has found that actions that advance the interests of others and move beyond self-focus, such as collaboration, openness, empathy, fairness and sharing are variables that can drive the gaining of power. While more selfish and less virtuous approaches can work wonders in the short-term, they are not an effective long-term strategy for leadership success.

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