Positive Leadership. Building on employees’ strengths.

Effective leadership positively affects employee engagement.

Effective leadership positively affects employee engagement, collaboration, organizational commitment, performance, well-being and customer satisfaction. There is growing evidence of the effectiveness of positive or strengths-based leadership. It is not the latest fad on strategies, it is grounded in years of scientific research with findings such as increased performance, productivity, well-being and engagement. It is more a leadership orientation than a leadership style, with a focus on empowerment and trust, value-based decisions, fostering a purpose-driven, positive organisational environment in which employees are empowered and can flourish.

Positive leaders emphasize and build on employees’ strengths rather than focus on their weaknesses, and this emphasis creates an attraction to forming strong interpersonal ties. The orientation is toward enabling thriving and flourishing at least as much as addressing obstacles and impediments. It is not the same as merely being nice, charismatic, trustworthy, or a servant leader. Rather, it incorporates these attributes and supplements them with a focus on strategies that provide strengths-based, positive energy to individuals and organizations. (1)

For many organizations nowadays, it can be advantageous to foster an environment where entrepreneurship, risk-taking (within boundaries), creativity, ownership and inventiveness are expected and rewarded. And this implies a different approach to control systems and a different role from (senior)managers. In general, micromanagement doesn’t work and employees are getting more freedom and autonomy in their work. The best management is sometimes less management.

“The old organization was built on control, but the world has changed. The world is moving at such a pace that control has become a limitation. It slows you down. You’ve got to balance freedom with some control, but you’ve got to have more freedom that you ever dreamed of”  Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric

The leader’s role is to free people, not control them –to free their strengths, ideas, energy and value’ Tony Hsieh, Managing Director, Zappos

Does your company consider employees to be an asset or a liability? Organizational success is only possible when you unlock, develop and reward the talents within your organization.

“People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough” (2)

It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. Peter Drucker

According to Kim Cameron, a foremost proponent of Positive Leadership and author of the bestselling ‘Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary performance’, Positive Leadership does not deny the existence of the not-so-pleasant-events and experiences in organisations, rather, it focuses on using ‘scientific evidence and theoretically-grounded principles to promote outcomes such as thriving at work, interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behaviours, positive emotions, and energising networks’. (3)


Many employees quit because of bad bosses. Of all the reasons people leave the companies they work for, having a bad manager tops the list, according to Gallup polls, 50% of employees who quit cite their manager as the reason. (4) Bad bosses can for instance damage the morale, productivity, trust, motivation and engagement of their people. Employees do not feel safe and cannot flourish under negative leadership.

“Leadership is not a position. It’s moral authority. Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, treating people with respect,” (Stephen Covey, author of bestselling books on leadership and self-improvement a.o. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

The most successful managers don’t lead from a position of command and control, they bring out the best of their people, they know what their own and what their employee’s strengths are. People thrive when their strengths are recognized, appreciated and utilized, when they are being coached and get ample opportunities to develop. It builds confidence, increases self-esteem and people take more ownership.

What motivates people is: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

According to Semler, the CEO of Semco the biggest obstacle for implementing participatory management are the managers themselves, because they are so inclined to hold onto their position (hierarchy) and status (power/money). Semler gives employees a lot of freedom, he wants them to get the job done on their own terms and they can blend their work life and personal life with enthusiasm and creative energy. “You can have an efficient company without rules and controls,” Semco CEO Ricardo Semler wrote in the Harvard Review in 2000. “You can be unbuttoned and creative without sacrificing profit. All it takes is faith in people.”

Leadership behaviour can have a big influence on the quality of the workplace, either bad or good. By helping people to play to their strengths and find more purpose at work, employees’ engagement and performance will increase.

Strengths are underlying personal qualities that energise us, contribute to our growth and lead to peak performance. Your strengths are natural abilities where you can perform at your best and have the biggest potential for growth. Professor Alex Linley, describes a strength as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance”.

The Corporate Leadership Council found that emphasising employee strengths in performance reviews increased performance by 36.4%. Whereas an emphasis on weaknesses caused a 26.8% decrease in performance.

… Research found that “the defining characteristic of the very best teams at Deloitte is that they are strengths oriented… Their members feel that they are called upon to do their best work every day”. (6)

A negativity bias is still prevalent in many organisations; it is a tendency to focus more on the negatives than the positives. And this also happens on an individual level, if for instance you get a few compliments–people saying you did a great job- but there is one comment that is not that positive, you will focus more on that one negative comment. Negative experiences weigh more heavily on our brains than others. People often overlook their strengths in favour of a focus on weaknesses.

Strengths are natural resources, authentic, energizing and lead to our best performance but the strengths-based approach to leadership development doesn’t ignore weaknesses or other performance risks. Strengths can for instance become derailers, serious performance risks if overdone.

“Many leaders not only don’t understand their strengths well, but are also unaware of what happens when these are overused. They derail not because of obvious weaknesses, but when strengths (or a combination of strengths) are overused or used in the wrong way or at the wrong time leading to unintended performance shortfalls. For example, a leader with courage as a strength might come across as too outspoken, reckless or rash in interpersonal situations requiring a more cautious and diplomatic approach. Similarly, a compassionate leader might spend so much time and emotional energy helping others that they end up compromising their own productivity and emotional wellbeing.” (7)

“To ensure a competitive advantage, senior executives have to push themselves and their teams hard. Under stress and challenges, the qualities that executives have relied on to get them to the top can ultimately lead to organizational catastrophes.” (8)

The relationship that people have with their manager is highly correlated with employee engagement.

Leaders can create the right conditions in which employees feel recognised, empowered, valued and where they have ample opportunities for growth and development. Leaders can also affect the energy and enthusiasm people have at work in positive or negative ways. Interactions with some leaders can make people feel drained while others tend to make people feel more inspired and energized.

 ‘A study that tracked employees moods found that the impact of negative interactions with bosses and co-workers on employees’ feelings were five times stronger than positive interactions. Negative interactions pack such a wallop in close relationships because they are so distracting, emotionally draining and deflating.’ (9) 

Positive leaders look for strengths instead of mainly focusing on what should be ‘repaired’, on deficits and gaps. They place a lot of emphasis on integrity, self-awareness, authenticity and social intelligence. Social intelligence is needed at the top and middle of the organizational hierarchy. Social intelligence is the awareness of your and others’ motives and feelings (you have a sense of what makes you and others tick) and having the agility to adapt your behaviour to what the situation dictates.’ (10) Do you know your strengths, are you -as a leader- optimizing your own potential and are you enabling your team to develop their full potential? Positive or strengths-based leaders are very self-aware of their own strengths, weaknesses, passions, values and their impact on others and they have created their own authentic leadership style.

“While many employers think their goal at work is to “make people happy,” the reality is that most of us work for a reason: we want to spend our time contributing to others and creating something bigger than ourselves. This is the core concept behind meaningful work. When the work itself is empowering; when we feel we are in the right jobs; when we feel close to our team; and when we have enough time and resources to succeed—we can be happy”.(11)

Jan Mühlfeit is the author of the book The positive leader. How energy and happiness fuel top-performing teams (13) and he was the Chairman of Microsoft Europe, he says that the best leadership decision he ever made during his entire career at Micrsoft was the decision to start working on his own and his team’s strengths. ..


1) Positive leadership, strategies for extraordinary performance – Kim Cameron 

2) Buckingham & Coffman

3) https://guardian.ng/features/positive-leadership-in-a-negative-world-part-1/

4) Gallup research

5) Daniel Pink, Drive

6) Deloitte / Study by Buckingham and Goodall

7) https://www.strengthscope.com/greatest-risks-leadership-performance-comes-overdone-strengths/

8) The Leadership Shadow

9) Robert I. Sutton, Good boss, bad boss. How to be the best… and learn from the worst.

10) Peterson & Seligman, 2004

11) Josh Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

12) Strength-Based Leadership: An Evidence-Based Guide to Positive Leadership Development by Doug MacKie, 2016

13) The Positive Leader. How energy and happiness fuel top-performing teams. Jan Mühlfiet and Melinda Costi, 2017

Brewerton, P., & Brook, J. (2006). Strengthscope™ Technical and User’s manual. London: Strengths Partnership.