Positive Leadership: 30 Must-Have Traits and Skills

By Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc., Researcher

If you’re a leader in any sense of the word, you know that it’s a difficult job. Leadership is about much more than giving orders, managing employees’ time and making schedules, or providing annual performance reviews; it’s a task that requires dedication and a wide range of skills.

Leading others can get messy and complicated, but it’s a vital role—and a vital role to get right. Read on to learn about how you can approach leadership in a positive, effective, and impactful way.

This article contains:

  • What is Positive Leadership?

  • Positive Leadership Styles

  • The Key Traits and Skills of a Positive Leader

  • Implementing Positive Psychology into Leadership

  • A Look at Positive Leadership in Project Management

  • Essential Leadership Skills Needed in Childcare

  • Recommended Articles

  • Recommended Books

  • 5 Youtube Videos

  • 5 Quotes on the Topic

  • A Take-Home Message

What is Positive Leadership?

Positive leadership is an area of study within positive psychology concerning leadership styles, techniques, and behavior that can be classified as deviant—positively deviant.

Being positively deviant means that the style, technique, or behavior the leader engages falls outside of the normal range observed in leadership. Think of a bell curve of leadership behaviors, with negative behaviors on the left and positive behaviors on the right. Most leadership behaviors will fall somewhere within the middle, the thickest part of the bell curve. Bad behaviors will fall in the far left tail, while positive leadership behaviors fall in the far right tail.

We spend a lot of time talking about bad leadership, pointing out what not to do, and trying to get people to shift their behavior from the left side to the middle-right of the bell curve. Positive leadership’s aim is to get leaders to shift their behavior from anywhere it may fall on this curve to the far right of the curve.

A Look at the Theory and Model

Positive leadership is a catch-all term, an umbrella under which several different leadership theories live.

The most well-known of these theories include:

  • Authentic Leadership Development (ALD)

  • Transformational Leadership

  • Charismatic Leadership

  • Servant Leadership

  • Spiritual Leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005)

The models employed by these theories differ based on the unique assumptions and relationships in which the theory is grounded, but generally, they all include a few agreed-upon components:

  • Positive leadership involves experiencing, modeling, and purposefully enhancing positive emotions.

  • A positive leader is interested in his or her employees’ development as well as the bottom line.

  • High self-awareness, optimism, and personal integrity (Avolio & Gardner, 2005).

A Look at Positive Organizational Leadership

Positive organizational leadership is an area of focus within positive organizational psychology that generally takes a broader perspective on the subject, looking at how leaders influence the organization itself.

This subfield of positive leadership explores topics like positive deviance on an organizational level, organizational citizenship behaviors (behaviors that indicate loyalty, commitment, and a willingness to go above and beyond), change management (particularly positive-focused change management), and other high-level ways that positive leaders can impact an organization.

Positive Leadership Styles

There are tons of positive leadership styles out there, and the exact number and description will depend on who you ask.

Ask leadership researchers Bruce Avolio or William Gardner and you’ll learn about the popular theory of authentic leadership development. An authentic leadership style is characterized by four factors: self-awareness, relational transparency, internalized moral perspective (a sense of ethics and integrity), and balanced processing (being fair and open-minded; Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, & Peterson, 2007).

If you ask emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman or his colleagues, researchers Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, you’ll hear about four of them:

  1. Visionary (or Authoritative) Leaders – they have an ambitious vision and they inspire others to pursue it.

  2. Coaching Leaders – they know how to further development, and get the best out of those around them, and they usually do just that.

  3. Affiliative Leaders – these leaders are well-versed in applying and enhancing positive affect in the workplace, and they can bring harmony and conflict resolution to a team.

  4. Consensus (or Democratic) Leaders – they thrive on collaboration, bringing together a diverse range of viewpoints to gather information and make decisions (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).

Talk to a number of organizational leaders and business executives and they’ll tell you about Bass’ transformational leadership style, which is characterized by:

  • Idealized influence: the leader is liked and respected by their followers, and serve as a role model.

  • Inspirational motivation: the leader motivates and inspires their followers.

  • Intellectual stimulation: the leader promotes creativity and innovation through open-mindedness and non-threatening questioning of ideas.

  • Individualized consideration: the leader treats each follower as a unique individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

You might also hear about charismatic leadership, a subtype of transformational leadership. In charismatic leadership, the leader checks all four of the boxes outlined above but he or she is also very skilled in communicating with others, especially on a deeper level (Riggio, 2012).

Finally, one of the other popular styles of positive leadership you may hear about is servant leadership. Servant leadership is defined as leadership that embodies three important factors:

  • It empowers and develops people.

  • It expresses humility, authenticity, interpersonal acceptance, and stewardship.

  • It provides direction (van Dierendonck, 2010).

What Does the Research Say?

Although the research is not settled, positive leadership is generally linked to better outcomes than negative leadership styles or “plain old leadership” styles. For example, transformational leadership has been found to contribute significantly to follower performance, job satisfaction, and extra effort expended (Molero, Cuadrado, Navas, & Morales, 2014). Further, servant leadership has been shown to enhance follower development, job satisfaction, and both follower and team performance (van Dierendonck, 2010).

We’ll look at some of the findings from research on positive leadership later in this piece, including ways to implement positive leadership tools and techniques.

6 Examples of Positive Leadership in Action

So what does positive leadership look like in action? It looks like leaders who care, who empower their employees, and who support their employees.

For example, a leader who cares will respond to a rare mistake from their most productive employee with concern and compassion rather than condemnation. A leader who cares will understand that we are all human and each and every one of us will make a mistake at some point. An effective positive leader will also understand that there is probably a reason behind the mistake, and she will talk to the employee to see if he or she is struggling with something that’s not immediately obvious.

A leader who empowers his employees is one who gives them as much power and self-determination as possible. A good positive leader does not give orders or answers but provides the guidance and resources necessary for his employees to do their best work.

An empowering leader might delegate projects and large-scale tasks to staff, but allow them to choose how they will go about tackling them. He may also encourage them to choose their own training and development opportunities to ensure they are invested in their own growth.

Finally, a positive leader supports her employees. This entails more than just seeming supportive; being a truly supportive leader requires acting as a backup for your employees and being there for them when they need it the most. This might look like acting as a buffer between his employees and a micromanaging middle manager, or it may manifest as speaking up for an employee in a meeting when he or she is struggling.

The Key Traits and Skills of a Positive Leader

To be a positive leader, there are some important skills and traits that you can develop or improve. Although this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, a few of the most vital of these traits and skills include:

  • Positive affect

  • Mindfulness

  • Hope

  • Confidence

  • Self-esteem

  • Self-efficacy

  • Locus of control

  • Emotional stability (Carleton, Barling, & Trivisonno, 2018; Hannah, Woolfolk, & Lord, 2009).

The Role of Resilience in Leadership

In addition to the traits and skills listed above, resilience plays a particularly vital role in leadership.

Think about how often something goes wrong at work or some unexpected problem crops up. The leaders that have to deal with these issues (and sometimes widespread fallout over such issues) are well-served by a solid foundation of resilience; without it, they would crumble at the first sign of trouble.

Resilient leaders are simply better leaders; not only can they handle a crisis better, but they are also generally more socially competent, have better problem-solving skills, and have a better sense of purpose and future (Luthans, 2002).

The Work of Kim Cameron

Kim Cameron is one of the biggest names in the positive leadership realm—you might even call him a “founding father” of positive leadership—and his work has proven to be a significant source of knowledge about positive leadership.

For example, Cameron’s description of positive leadership has been widely used to define the boundaries of the subfield; the three connotations of positive leadership according to Cameron are:

  1. It facilitates positively deviant (extraordinarily positive) performance.

  2. It features an affirmative bias, meaning that it is oriented towards the positive (strengths instead of weaknesses).

  3. It fosters the good in people (e.g., virtuousness, moral integrity; Cameron, 2008).

This simple but comprehensive description of positive leadership perfectly captures what sets it apart from all other types of leadership. Cameron’s work has made positive leadership more accessible to everyone as well as adding valuable findings to the literature.

Implementing Positive Psychology into Leadership