Positive Leadership In Challenging Times


We are in the midst of a pandemic wherein the consequences to our health, our economy and the world of business as we know it are all encompassing. The loss of life on such a calamitous scale is heart-wrenching and the uncertainty that looms before us seems unfathomable. Research tells us that the most common reaction to such conditions is bearing down, protectionism, problem orientation and fending off anxiety. As a leader, how then do you respond to the unprecedented challenges you're facing now and that unpredictably lie ahead?


For nearly two decades, Professor Kim Cameron has been gathering empirical data on organisations who have achieved success when confronted with difficult economic circumstances. Whilst emphasising the negative may seem necessary and adaptive, focusing on the positive is life-giving for both individuals and organisations. This is especially so in situations that seem threatening, stressful and worrisome. [1] When we focus on that which elevates individuals and systems, what is right, what is inspiring, we enable exceptional positive performance.

Positive leaders place their focus on unlocking the potential in organisations and the people within and are not fearful of deviating against the norm. They make a significant impact and inspire others to thrive at work and flourish in life.

The deviance continuum explores departure from the norm which can be either positive or negative. According to Camerons' research, all organisations exist to eliminate deviant behaviour and strive to be in the middle of this continuum. Historically, in medical research, health, psychology and business we have spent the majority of our time on the left side of the continuum, focusing on what is wrong. In turn we have neglected to pay attention to positively deviant behaviour, or the abundance gaps. In trying times, deficit gaps seem to dominate leaders attention; it would be foolish to recommend not paying attention to the threats and the problems, but these deficit gaps tend to narrow our focus on the abundance gaps.[2]





Positively deviant leadership is established on the premise of specific processes, techniques and practices that leaders use to produce exceptional results. When applied, these processes and practices have resulted in increases in profitability, productivity, quality, customer satisfaction and employee retention. [3]


The positively deviant state in organisations can be thought of as a virtuous condition. Though not a popular word in business, the origin of being virtuous simply means the best of the human condition – the highest aspirations we have for ourselves. When we shift our attention to the positive right hand side of the continuum – towards the abundance gap – we can unleash something called the heliotropic effect. The heliotropic effect implies that every living system has a tendency towards the light (think of a plant in the window) and away from the dark (or the negative). We are energised by positivity, it opens up our thought-action repertoires [4] and leads to better performance for ourselves and those we lead.


Five Keys to Flourishing in Trying Times [5]

  1. Capitalise on the heliotropic effect. Cultivate a positive climate, establish meaning, develop “Everest goals”. Everest goals are not just dreams, rather they encourage exceptional performance, they focus on opportunities and possibilities, and energise people.

  2. Manage economic downturns virtuously. As leaders it is imperative that difficult decisions and conversations are held authentically, from a place of compassion, with integrity and trust. The way downsizing occurs is more important than the fact that it occurs.

  3. Focus on abundance gaps. Identify positive practices that have made an impact including positive communication, highlight individual and team strengths and identify champions of both products and performance behaviours.

  4. Create positive energy in the face of decline. Positive energisers create and support vitality in others, when they leave a room there is more energy in that room, they uplift and boost morale. As a leader it is essential that you act as a catalyst, enabling others to perform better and truly develop their potential.

  5. Implement positive practices. When virtuous practices are implemented, an abundance culture follows. Express gratitude and appreciate, promote positive emotion, forgive, demonstrate compassion.


Positive leadership is beyond optimism and hope. At its' core it focuses on what is right as well as estimating what can go wrong, what fuels growth rather than what depletes it, what drives individuals as well as what challenges them. Positive leadership seeks to engage, empower and inspire others to do and be their best.


So ask yourself, how can you engage positive practices within your organisation?



[1, 5] Cameron, K. (2010). Five keys to flourishing in trying times. Leader to Leader2010(55), 45-51.


[2, 3] Cameron, K., Bright, D. & Caza, A. (2004), 'Exploring the relationships between organizational virtuousness and performance', American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 766-790.


[4] Fredrickson, B. L. (2003), 'Positive emotions and upward spirals in organizations', in K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton & R. E. Quinn (eds), Positive Organizational Scholarship, San Francisco, CA: BerrettKoehler Publishers Inc., pp. 163-175


Kirsten works with individuals and organisations to help establish positive leadership practices that contribute to personal and professional flourishing. Contact her today to tap into your potential.

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