You don’t have to look far to see how vital good leadership is to an organisation. Consider how your favourite sports team fared after the retirement of an inspirational leader. If sport isn’t your thing, think about how many companies have struggled to come up with innovative products following the departure of a visionary founder.
Small wonder then that vast amounts of energy have been spent trying to figure out what makes a good leader. Unfortunately, for a long time, this endeavor was based more on casual observation than scientific evidence, leading people to mimic the worst attributes of iconic leaders.
As the field’s evolved, however, it’s become increasingly clear that great leadership isn’t about brazenly stealing from competitors or ruthlessly chopping people you perceive to be non-performers.
Instead, it’s about creating and maintaining a sense of positivity.
One of the leading proponents of this positive model of leadership is Potentialife co-founder, Angus Ridgway. Together with fellow co-founder Tal Ben-Shahar, he’s developed science-based methods for fostering leadership behaviours at all levels within an organisation.
We recently got to talk to Ridgway about why positivity is so crucial to leadership, why everyone within a company can be a leader, and the lessons from The Joy of Leadership, the new book he’s co-authored with Ben-Shahar.
The importance of positivity
So why is positivity so important to leadership? And why is vital that it be demonstrated across the organisation?
Well, in part, it’s because the organisation had changed dramatically in the last few years.
“In the old days,” Ridgway pointed out, “people had a role-based definition of work”. In other words, we all had roles and those roles fitted together into a system within an organisation.
Today, things are far more fluid, allowing people to express themselves more broadly within their roles.
“What’s also very important now is how we use the wiggle room that surrounds the role definition we have,” Ridgway told us.
“We all have a choice to bring a different version of ourselves to work every day,” he added, pointing out that organisations therefore have to “think very carefully about how to encourage you to bring the right version of yourself every day”.
Doing so, it’s becoming clear is far more about attitude than a specific skill set.
“How do you build an organisation with 20 000 on-fire people?”, Ridgway ask. “Traditional event or training based interventions won’t work because this is attitudinal change we’re talking about”.
Leadership across the organisation
This shift in mindset can have a profound impact on the organisation, unlocking leadership qualities in people who might never have had them before.
“Once you recognise that the attitudinal side of leadership should be front and centre, to some extent, leadership turns itself upside down,” Ridgway said.
As a result, he added, “sometimes the most real and impressing leaders are at the front-line and not necessarily at the top”.
One of the Potenialife co-founder’s favourite examples of this involves a shelf packer in a UK supermarket called Lydia.
Ridgway met Lydia about three years ago after her manager described her as one of the most important people in the store.
“She was the most positive, warm, engaging person I’d met in a long time,” Ridgway said. “I felt that I had all of Lydia, her total presence as I was talking to her”.
As it turned out, those qualities made Lydia ideal for dealing with irate customers.
“The store manager told me that when they sent Lydia to deal with those irate customers, the problem went away about half the time,” Ridgway said.
That’s an important form of leadership and it’s reflected in the way people like Lydia understand their roles.
“When you ask Lydia what she does,” Ridgway told us, “she doesn’t say, ‘I stack shelves’. Instead, she’ll tell you about how she creates a customer-satisfied environment”.
According to the Potentialife co-founder, the heads of organisations are already implicitly looking for people like Lydia.
The can have them too. As long as they remember why they want this kind of attitudinal leadership.
“The most important thing,” Ridgway points out, “is to link positivity to a strategic objective”.
According to Ridgway, this attitudinal approach will only become more important as technologies like AI play increasingly large roles within organisations:
“In the old world, to some extent, being human in your job was almost a nice-to-have. But if you think about what AI’s going to do, any work task that’s codifiable or repeatable is going to be roboticised. The work that’s going to be left for us is the difficult stuff that requires creativity and imagination”.
In other words, the stuff that’s going to be left for us is going to require us to be more human.
“Being human is rapidly becoming the essence of what we do in our work,” Ridgway said.
The power of story-telling
It’s a message that resonates strongly throughout the Joy of Leadership, which is itself a culmination of the very human relationship Ridgway has with Ben-Shahar.
Leadership isn’t just the field they work in every day, it’s also what brought them together in the first place.
“When Tal and I met for the first time,” Ridgway told us, “we started talking about how the world of work has changed and will continue to change, and how that has many implications on leadership”.
Over time, they’ve come to realise that exceptional leaders display five major strengths:
- Strengths: 10X leaders stop trying to eliminate weaknesses and learn to focus on their strengths
- Health: 10X leaders stop trying to eliminate stress and learn how to integrate periods of restoration
- Absorption: 10X leaders stop waiting for the lightning of focus and creativity to strike and learn how to achieve consistent engagement and presence
- Relationships: 10X leaders stop trying to exert power and control and learn to cultivate healthy relationships through positivity and authenticity
- Purpose: 10X leaders stop grinding out tasks and learn how to find meaning and commitment in everything they do
While the authors could have put the above down matter-of-factly and justified it with research, Ridgway says it was important to play to more human considerations.
“The importance of telling stories is absolutely vital when it comes to conveying ideas,” he said. “We love the science of leadership, we love the research, but it’s amazing what you can achieve just by telling a story”.
Backed by data
By marrying data and storytelling together in this way, Ridgway hopes to make it much easier for people to understand what great leadership is.
Some people, he admits, have always known. But when these people talk about operating from their gut, or from instinct, they’re more likely to be doing something different.
According to Ridgway, these people are simply operating from a set of available data points and making decisions based on them.
The more information, they have available, the more data they can bring to those experiences.
“When we didn’t have the science available, you could refer to your gut,” Ridgway pointed out. “And why not? There’s lots of accumulation of pattern recognition available to your gut.”
“But,” he added, “if you do have the science available, why not use it?”
It’s something that plenty of people could stand to remember now and which will only become more important as the nature of work and leadership continue to evolve.