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The Best Leaders Have a Contagious Positive Energy

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Catherine Ledner/Getty Images

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 Researchers and leaders have looked for the secret to successful leadership for centuries. Dozens of new books each year promise to deliver the answer. We decided to examine this question empirically, and when we did, we found that the greatest predictor of success for leaders is not their charisma, influence, or power. It is not personality, attractiveness, or innovative genius. The one thing that supersedes all these factors is positive relational energy: the energy exchanged between people that helps uplift, enthuse, and renew them.

Here’s what leaders need to know about positive relational energy, which we’ve found to be the most underutilized yet powerful predictor of leadership and organizational success.

The Importance of Positive Relational Energy

In our work, including interviews with thousands of leaders and employees, an upcoming book, and two decades of research on positive leadership, we’ve looked at people in terms of their networks of relationships: communities, organizations, and families. We’ve observed that certain relationships within those networks are extraordinarily life-enhancing and uplifting. The result is extraordinary performance. In particular, there’s usually one person at the center of these networks who’s responsible for most of the forward motion — not to mention well-being — of all the rest. We call them positive energizers.

Energizers’ greatest secret is that, by uplifting others through authentic, values-based leadership, they end up lifting up both themselves and their organizations. Positive energizers demonstrate and cultivate virtuous actions, including forgiveness, compassion, humility, kindness, trust, integrity, honesty, generosity, gratitude, and recognition in the organization. As a result, everyone flourishes.

The pandemic has taken a significant toll on the well-being and energy of so many. Positively energizing leaders are more crucial than ever. Positive energy, however, is not the superficial demonstration of false positivity, like trying to think happy thoughts or turning a blind eye to the very real stresses and pressures overloaded employees are experiencing. Rather, it is the active demonstration of values.

You’ve met people like this. They’re like the sun. These people walk into a room and make it glow. Everyone becomes energized, enthused, inspired, and connected. These incandescent people are positive energizers. Other members of these networks are depleting: the ones who leave the others feeling de-energized, demoralized, diminished, and uninspired. You know the ones — they sap your energy every time. We’ve given them the name de-energizers.

In our analysis of these energizing and de-energizing individuals in the work environment, we were especially interested in studying the energizing effects of leaders, because leaders are the single most important factor in accounting for an organization’s performance. These studies gave us tremendous insight into the secrets of every successful leader.

Numerous studies run by our group and our colleagues show that positive energizers produce substantially higher levels of engagement, lower turnover, and enhanced feelings of well-being among employees. This is partly because at the cellular level of brain activity, cortical thickness is enhanced through exposure to relational energy, hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine are increased, and at the cellular level in the body, inflammation is reduced and immunity to disease is enhanced. In organizations, superior shareholder returns occur, and in some of our studies, outcomes exceeded industry averages in profitability and productivity by a factor of four or more.

Here’s what differentiates positive relational energy. Physical energy diminishes with use. Running a marathon exhausts us. We need recuperation time. The same is true with the use of mental and emotional energy. We become fatigued and need to recover. The only kind of energy that doesn’t diminish but actually elevates with use is positive relational energy. We rarely get exhausted, for example, by being around people with whom we have loving, trusting, supportive relationships. Positive relational energy is self-enhancing. The ability of leaders to engender relational energy is in fact so powerful that it gives energizers an extraordinary advantage. They can turn around failing companies, resolve seemingly doomed situations, and revitalize disengaged and burned-out employees.

Assessing Relational Energy

Here’s how we identified energizers: We asked members of hundreds of organizations — from mom-and-pop startups to multinational corporations — this question: “When I interact with this person [person X] in my organization, what happens to my energy?” In other words, each person was asked to rate themselves on a scale from very positively energized to very de-energized when they interacted with another person in their enterprise. Each member of a senior team, for example, rated their interaction with every other member of the senior team.

We were astonished by the results of this research. When leaders display positive relational energy, it catapults performance to a new level. More specifically, positive energizers:

  • Are themselves far higher performers than others
  • Positively impact others’ performance, so that other people tend to flourish in their presence
  • Exist in greater numbers at high-performing organizations than at average-performing organizations

When the leader is a positive energizer, the organization has greater:

  • Innovation (the number-one attribute that CEOs look for across industries and countries)
  • Teamwork
  • Financial performance, including productivity and quality
  • Workplace cohesion

And when a leader is a positive energizer, employees have greater:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Well-being
  • Engagement
  • Performance
  • Relationships with family

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Emma Seppälä, PhD, is the faculty director of the Yale School of Management’s Women’s Leadership Program and the author of The Happiness Track. She is also science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Follow her work at www.emmaseppala.com.
Kim Cameron, PhD, is the William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and the author of Positive LeadershipPracticing Positive Leadership, and Positively Energizing Leadership.

 

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