The 6 Pillars of Positive Leadership

Adapted excerpt from “Do Good to Lead Well: The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership” by Craig Dowden (ForbesBooks, Feb. 8, 2019).

Developing positive leaders is of paramount concern to organizations today. If you conduct a Google search on this topic, you can get anywhere from 15 to 20 million entries. Countless models suggest different ways to accomplish this important goal. This leaves leaders and organizations wondering how to do the right thing to obtain the desired result. 

This book summarizes the social, behavioral, and management sciences to present six evidence-informed pillars of positive leadership. Substantial, independent research has demonstrated that leaders who follow these six evidence-informed pillars accrue significant tangible and intangible benefits, ranging from increased employee engagement to more innovation and higher revenue. In the following excerpt, we will explore how the “softer side” of leadership maximizes our individual and collective success. 

Whether leading a small team, large division, or an entire organization, these evidence-informed pillars provide a roadmap on how to transform your workplace, and challenge you to leverage the power of doing good to lead well. 

Pillar 1: Self-Awareness 

Self-awareness plays a critical role in leading well, as it is only through knowing who we are and how we come across to others that that we can capitalize on our strengths, identify our weaknesses and blind spots, and take appropriate action accordingly. 

Every time we speak or act, we judge ourselves based on our intentions. However, because other people do not know what we’re thinking or feeling, they assess our words and behaviors based on their impact. For example, when we make a comment intended to be light-hearted, someone else may hear it as derogatory. 

These moments provide golden opportunities to grow our self-awareness and learn why something we did, or said, did not have the impact we intended. Yet we rarely take advantage of these potential learning experiences. Instead, we are more likely to try and explain ourselves, placing the blame on the other person for misunderstanding us, or the situation. 

For this reason, as well as many others, self-awareness is the cornerstone of positive leadership. 

Pillar 2: Civility 

No matter where we sit in an organization, we look up to understand how to behave. This is particularly important for high-potential employees who aspire to positions of leadership. They need to know how to get ahead, and if they see the current leadership exhibiting disrespectful, toxic behaviors, that is what they are going to emulate. In the same vein, when team members are treated with disrespect, they are less likely to put forth their best efforts, or even care about the success of the company. In this way, incivility can create a self-perpetuating downward spiral of negativity that can become challenging, if not impossible, for an organization to recover from.

Civility may be defined as “politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech,” yet it is far less formal than this explanation implies. Civility is a necessary ingredient of growth and success, regardless of whether you are an organization or a human being. Without it, failure is inevitable. 

Pillar 3: Humility 

When people are asked to rate the most important qualities a leader should possess, humility is often close to, if not dead, last. Unfortunately, the perception is that humility makes you seem weak. And yet, when people are asked how they feel about a leader who exhibits humility (e.g., by genuinely apologizing for a behavior), they rarely say they perceive that leader as “weak.” Instead, they almost instantly have a greater respect for such leaders and admire them for their courage and strength of character. 

Humility is being aware of our strengths while simultaneously recognizing we do not have all the answers and being willing to ask others for their knowledge and perspective. This allows us to take full advantage of the insights available to us in our surrounding environment. 

Although humility may seem counterintuitive, it is the very act that inspires confidence in others about our capacity to lead well. 

Pillar 4: Focus on the Positive 

In focusing on the positive, we are not ignoring the negative. Instead, we are giving our energy and attention to those things that engender positivity. 

When we are in a positive frame of mind, research suggests we interact with our environment more effectively, as we look for opportunities to “broaden and build” our perspective (referring to positive psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory). When we are in a negative frame of mind, however, we contract from that openness and want to avoid risk: We become much more protective and cautious in orientation. In business, this can mean the difference between an organization’s survival or failure. In looking toward the future with a positive frame of mind, a company is more likely to be innovative and challenge the status quo. When this outlook is replaced by fear, however, organizations are more likely to shut themselves off, avoid risks, and embrace the mindset of simply staying the course. As we shall see, without a positive focus, organizations are doomed to fail. 

Pillar 5: Meaning and Purpose 

Based on global surveys, the most important driver of employee engagement is “the opportunity to do meaningful work” (Paul Fairlie, “Meaningful Work, Employee Engagement, and Other Key Employee Outcomes,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 13, no. 4 (December 6, 2011): 508-25, Essentially, this means making a contribution to something above and beyond ourselves. If team members believe their work is pointless, they quickly will lose enthusiasm and eventually leave. Yet meaning and purpose can be found in every job—it is a primary responsibility of the leader to ensure every team member knows where to find it. When employees are dedicated to the purpose of what they do, not only does it drive better results, it improves retention. The opportunity to make a difference is an invaluable currency. 

Pillar 6: Empathy 

Empathy has been identified as the most important skill to develop by many of the leading experts and organizations today because it generates a level of interpersonal understanding and acceptance that we, as humans, crave. Empathy allows us to step outside of ourselves and not only see situations through another’s eyes, but to understand things from their point of view. 

Empathy is also a powerful competitive advantage to foster within organizations, as it is a quality that is steadily declining. According to University of Michigan researcher Sarah Konrath, “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago (Diane Swanbrow, “Empathy: College Students Don’t Have as Much as They Used to,” University of Michigan News, May 27, 2010, releases/7724-empathy-college-students-don-t-have-as-much-as-they-used-to).” In a related but separate study, she and her fellow researchers found a similar decline in kindness and helpfulness across a nationally represented sample of Americans. 

As biologist and professor of psychology, Frans de Waal notes in his book, “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society,” life is not simply a perpetual struggle to survive—we depend on each other to survive. Nature is full of examples of cooperation and empathy, and we would not be here today without these qualities. 

“Human morality,” de Waal writes, “is unthinkable without empathy.” 

Adapted excerpt from “Do Good to Lead Well: The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership” by Craig Dowden, Ph.D. (ForbesBooks, February 2019).  Used with permission from the publisher.

Craig Dowden has a Ph.D. in psychology with a specialization in business and is a certified positive psychology coach. He became a regular columnist for Forbes in January 2019 and has been a long-standing contributor to the Financial Post, the Huffington Post (U.S.), Psychology Today, HR Professional, Canadian HR Reporter, Your Workplace, and Canadian Manager. In 2009, he was recognized as one of Ottawa’s 40 under 40 business leaders by the Ottawa Business Journal. Dowden received his Doctorate in Psychology with a concentration in Business from Carleton University and completed his Bachelor of Science in psychology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He currently lives in Toronto. For more information, visit


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