Leadership and Culture
Critical attributes needed for a successful workplace
Several years ago, I heard about Professor Kim Cameron, from the University of Michigan, and how he taught the concept of positive leadership and its heliotropic effect. He explained: “This refers to the tendency in all living systems toward positive energy [light] and away from negative energy [darkness]. From single-cell organisms to complex human systems, everything alive has an inherent inclination toward the positive and away from the negative.” I was intrigued by this and thought about my own leadership style. I had read many studies that discussed how we create pathways in our brain when we focus on either the negative or the positive. The more we choose to focus on the negative the more we program our brains to instantly go there. It takes effort to then reprogram our thought processes to instead focus on the positive.
When I first met my wife I was impressed with her ability to assume the best in others. If someone cut us off on the road, my tendency was to honk the horn and say how irresponsible that driver is. However, my wife would hold a more compassionate view and say something like, “they must be rushing to the hospital for an emergency, so its ok I am sure they didn’t intend to be reckless.” Her ability to focus on the positive enabled her to always have a good day and prevented the actions of others to control her life.
Leaders need positivity if they want to be followed. Negativity leads to mistrust in a team and its eventual ruin. Positivity binds a team together. I will never forget, during my graduate program we were instructed to discuss with our groups how we viewed each other and to give feedback. It started out very negative, with people going around saying things that others needed to work on. When it came to my turn it didn’t feel right to focus on the negative. So instead I went through each person in our group saying what I admired about them and what I felt they did really good at. As I did this I could visibly see the change in each persons appearance. Their faces lighted up, their countenances changed from a defensive posture to being more open. There was one particular member of our group that had a very strong personality that intimidated everyone else, as this person tended to be very critical towards others. Afterwards this individual expressed gratitude to me in how my words had affected him. That experience opened the door in being able to develop a positive relationship with him. I didn’t expect this response, but this has stuck with me since then as a lesson on how positivity can impact a team. As I have exercised this practice since, I have always been rewarded with a positive impact.
Professor Cameron, also taught in support of many studies, that focusing on three critical components: compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude led to a successful workplace. When I learned this I realized that my own leadership style was lacking these critical attributes. I believed these attributes to be important personal ideals, but making them part of the culture of an organization, and as a critical part of my leadership style was something I needed to improve.
I have found time and time again, that as I focus on compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude it leads others to do the same. As I have compassion for others, I am then able to forgive their mistakes and shortcomings, which makes it easier to express gratitude for their efforts. Likewise, they then feel a sense of gratitude towards me, which allows them to forgive me of my shortcomings and to have compassion for me. I have especially learned that when tensions are the highest, when people are at their breaking point, the best thing we can do as a leader is exercise these attributes.
As leaders, the choices we make, the rules we choose to enforce or not enforce, the expectations we place on our subordinates, is what creates the culture in our workplaces. This then has a trickle down effect throughout the rest of the organization. As leaders we create the culture. If we fail to focus on these critical attributes what kind of workplace are we creating? Likely not one that is going to reinforce positivity.
One of the most proudest moments in my career, was when I was told after having a third party evaluation done on my performance, that my direct reports discussed these attributes as being key to my leadership style. As a leader we have many expectations, much of which is determined by the culture we create within our organization. It all starts with us, or rather “me” and how “I” choose to be, how “I” choose to think.
As living organisms, we all grow towards the light and shrivel and die in the darkness. The same is true with our workplaces. They will grow in light or positivity, or die in the darkness or negativity. The best way to inspire that light, is through compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude.
 Kim Cameron, Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, 2nd ed. (2012), xii; see also Kim S. Cameron, “Leading with Energy,” Wheatley Institution Fellow Notes, Feb. 17, 2017, wheatley.byu.edu.