Cardinal Virtues
August 31, 2022

Why Positively Energising Leadership is a call for virtues

By Paul Laughlin

How often do you think about virtues among the aspects of leadership you seek to develop? Even hearing that use of language I’m aware it can sound outdated. But a new book from Professor Kim Cameron, “Positively Energising Leadership“, remakes the case for why leaders & organisations need to focus on virtues.

When I first received this book, from my ever astute coaching supervisor, I was not encouraged by the cover. It looked to me like a book from a cult or self-improvement commune. How wrong I was. This is a very relevant book for our times. Like the power of Adaptive Leadership in VUCA times (as I’ve shared previously), a virtue-driven Positively Energising Leadership is so needed in our times.

In this book review, I’ll share what you can expect to find in this book. Plus, I’ll share what I learned from it & why I see it as so relevant for organisations today. Finally, I’ll share some thoughts on what else I would have liked to see included. Perhaps pointing to areas for more study, or Kim’s next book.

What’s in Positively Energising Leadership?

The first encouragement I want to share is that this book is a relatively short & easy read. There are plenty of resources to help you follow up or dip into it again for reference. But the main body of the book is only 156 pages, structured into just 6 chapters (plus the introduction & conclusion). As well as an easy-to-navigate structure, expect to come across plenty of research evidence throughout the book. It feels as much like a manifesto or case for funding as a business book. It will certainly help leaders make the case for their organisations to invest in such leadership development.

The six chapters that I mentioned above cover these key parts of the evidence case:

  1. Types of energy & Heliotropic effect (scientific evidence for positively energising leadership)
  2. Example of positive energy in organisations (case studies demonstrating ROI & how to map it)
  3. Attributes of Positively Energising Leaders (what do they do differently & the impact)
  4. Developing Positively Energising Leadership (how to use virtues to develop this behaviour)
  5. Examples of Positively Energising Leadership (more case studies of leaders who role model this)
  6. Handling objections (answers for the most common objections encountered)

The conclusion section also does a good job of summarising the 14 principles from the book & suggestions to act on these. Readers of this blog will also be interested to see the use of a number of data visualization techniques (network maps & bubble charts) to map relationships. Kim demonstrates how this helps bring to light both the most positively energising people in teams & their opposite.

Why is this book so relevant for leaders today?

Because of the need for more than superficial virtue signalling. If the curse of the last generation of organisations was meaningless mission statements, the curse of this one is surely shallow “washing” to appear on message with societal changes. From concerns about bias in terms of race, gender, sexuality, disabilities, representation or environmental impact, much has been done to make logos & brand advertising look right. But all too often little is done to actually improve the experience of everyone working in an organisation in a practical & sustainable way.

This book drills deeper. It gets into the psychology of why our interactions with some people leave us feeling energised & happy, whilst others leave us drained & sad/frustrated. It also dares to identify that the drivers of being a positively energising leader are virtues. Yes, it’s that unpopular word again. This book helps leaders not work on their spin, gravitas or other externals – but actually treat people better. Kim also shows that this is much deeper & more practical than superficial positivity.

There is more to this in the book, but here are the 15 virtuous behaviours seen in energisers:

  • Help other people flourish without expecting payback
  • Express gratitude & humility
  • Instil confidence & self-efficacy in others
  • Smile frequently
  • Forgive weakness in others
  • Invest in developing personal relationships
  • Share plum assignments & recognise others
  • Listen actively & empathetically
  • Solve problems
  • Mostly see opportunities
  • Clarify meaningfulness & inspire others
  • Are trusting & trustworthy
  • Are genuine & authentic
  • Motivate others to exceed performance standards
  • Mobilise positive energisers who can motivate others

So what more do you want in a book?

Let me pause first and say I do recommend this book. It shines a light on an important aspect of leadership & makes the case for the development of virtuous behaviours to energise others very well. It also contains some very helpful resources at the end of the book. These include how to survey & map your organisation, plus some activities & practices to try with your team.

Yet, I was still left wanting more. Two things struck me as needed in addition to what is contained in this book. Firstly, more on how to develop a desire for & ease with each of the virtues outlined. Most people need to work on being more generous, gracious, humble, forgiving, trusting, open & inspiring. By halfway through this book I was convinced by the evidence & wanted more of a shift to practically how. As a coach, I recognise that the answer is more than just some new meetings or ways of working. A follow-up or longer version might helpfully share more on how to nurture the virtues that work so well.

That leads to my second point. Given the evidence for the power of virtues in leaders, I would like more acknowledgement of the role of religion here. Obviously, this is not for everyone. But as a person of faith myself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make the case for learning from millennia of wisdom. The major faiths encourage such virtues. Many help believers nurture and practice such virtues in their lives (including in workplaces). Including more on this would also address another often overlooked aspect of diversity. Valuing people of faith in secular organisations and working with them to allow them to be themselves at work and collaborate to nurture virtues. This book has so much evidence to make the case for such a focus. I pray there could be progress on that inclusion too.

How could you nurture virtues in your organisation?

I hope you feel inspired to look into Positively Energising Leadership. There are more resources and information available on this at the University of Michigan Centre for Positive Organisations. I recommend taking a look & perhaps checking out one of Kim Cameron’s YouTube videos or TEDx talk.

Now, what about you? Are you a positive energiser of those around you? Do you recognise the role of virtuous behaviours to achieve such a release of positive energy & better relationships? How are you nurturing your own virtues to sustain such behaviour? Does an active faith help you? If not, what else do you find nurtures and develops you in the virtues which can empower your leadership?