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date: 27 January 2021

Positive Leadership in Organizationsfree

  • Lucas MonzaniLucas MonzaniUniversity of Western Ontario, Ivey Business School
  •  and Rolf Van DickRolf Van DickDepartment of Social Psychology, Goethe University Frankfurt


Positive leadership is a major domain of positive organizational scholarship. The adjective “positive” applies to any leader behavioral pattern (style) that creates the conditions by which organizational members can self-actualize, grow, and flourish at work. Some examples of style are authentic, transformational, servant, ethical, leader–member exchange, identity leadership, and the leader character model. Despite the myriad constructive outcomes that relate to said positive leadership styles, positive leadership it is not without its critics. The three main criticisms are that (a) the field is fragmented and might suffer from conceptual redundancy, (b) extant research focuses on the individual level of analysis and neglects reciprocal and cross-level effects, and (c) positive leadership is naïve and not useful for managing organizations.

Our multilevel model of positive leadership in organizations proposes that leaders rely on internalization and integration to incorporate meaningful life experiences and functional social norms into their core self. Further, through self-awareness and introspection, leaders discover and exercise their latent character strengths. In turn, positive leaders influence followers through exemplary role modeling and in turn followers validate leaders by adopting their attributes and self-determined behaviors. At the team level of analysis, positive team leaders elevate workgroups into teams by four mechanisms that shape a shared “sense of we,” and workgroup members legitimize positive leaders by granting them a leader role identity and assuming follower role identities. Finally, at the organizational level, organizational leaders can shape a virtuous culture by anchoring it on universal virtues and through corporate social responsibility actions improve their context. Alternatively, organizations can shape a virtuous culture through organizational learning.

Introduction: What Is Positive Leadership?

The 21st century inaugurated a new way of understanding leadership (Dinh et al., 2014; Luthans & Avolio, 2003; Monzani, Ripoll, & Peiro, 2012). More precisely, the academic narrative on leadership moved beyond a purely dramaturgical view of leadership, where leaders are seen as charismatic heroes and followers as passive recipients of influence (Gardner & Avolio, 1998). As a result of such a narrative shift, myriad new leadership theories emerged.

Further, after such shift, the term “leadership” is frequently used to label an interactive process of reciprocal influence where social actors (leaders, followers, and other stakeholders) interact with each other and their context (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings, & Thatcher, 2013; Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2020; Hernandez, Eberly, Avolio, & Johnson, 2011; Meuser et al., 2016). Academia’s shift away from leader-centric theories, models, and frameworks was partially driven by the general public’s disappointment with how highly charismatic (yet also highly self-serving and narcissistic) leaders took part and facilitated a series of scandals during the first decade of the 21st century. Such scandals peaked during the Wall Street Crash of 2008 and the devastating Great Recession that followed (Barling, Christie, & Turner, 2008; Gandz, Crossan, Seijts, & Stephenson, 2010; Price, 2003).

In this article, the adjective “positive” derives from the insights that positive psychology brought to the field of organizational behavior (Luthans & Youssef, 2007; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Positive psychology is a domain of psychology that is theoretically anchored on classical Western and Eastern philosophical systems, and its primary aim is helping individuals to self-actualize, grow, and flourish (Snyder & Lopez, 2002). After more than 10 years since its inception, positive organizational scholarship is an established field of academic inquiry, and positive leadership is one of its major domains of interest (Luthans & Avolio, 2009).

One common characteristic of these new positive leadership theories, models, and frameworks is that most share a moral component grounded in one or more classical virtue ethics systems (Lemoine, Hartnell, & Leroy, 2019). Some examples include authentic leadership (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005), ethical leadership (Brown, Treviño, & Harrison, 2005), and servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977; Liden, Wayne, Zhao, & Henderson, 2008). “Positive leadership” is extended to those leadership theories, models, and frameworks that aim to elevate followers, groups, and other organizational stakeholders and foster organizational excellence, veritable organizational performance, and sustainable processes and practices (Hernandez et al., 2011).

Positive leadership should matter for organizational stakeholders. For example, a line manager can increase the quality and quantity of solutions that engineers create by building and broadening psychological capital, meaning personal resources such as hope, optimism, resilience, and efficacy (Avey, Avolio, & Luthans, 2011). Similarly, project managers can elevate their team’s functioning by clarifying the group’s goals and processes (Hu & Liden, 2011), promoting a shared identity and “sense of us” (Steffens et al., 2014), and creating collective affective states (positive work climate; Woolley, Caza, & Levy, 2010). Similarly, at the upper echelons of a firm, positive leaders can use their authority to drive financial performance in a socially responsible way (De Hoogh & Den Hartog, 2008; Skubinn, Buengeler, & Schank, 2019). These are just some illustrations of the myriad outcomes that positive leadership has for followers, teams, organizations, and even society.

In order to understand positive leadership in organizations, an integrative effort is necessary (Meuser et al., 2016). Further, in order to provide a meaningful contribution to the leadership field so that it moves beyond the study of interpersonal influence, such integration should be horizontal (i.e., providing enough breath and coverage regarding research in positive leadership models) as well as vertical, meaning that it captures mechanisms that span across multiple levels of analysis (Yammarino, Dionne, Chun, & Dansereau, 2005). Thus, an integrative multilevel approach to theorizing on positive leadership in organizations would provide scholars with an account of how positive leaders extend their influence beyond a close collaborator (e.g., a follower), but also beyond teams and the organization. More importantly, it should capture those social forces and influences that facilitate or hinder leader(ship) emergence and development.

The article is structured as follows. First, instead of trying to cover the existing research on every positive leadership style (Zhao & Li, 2019), we abstract three core assumptions that generalize across positive leadership models. Then, we follow a suggestion by Hernandez et al. (2011) to explore the different sources (loci), transmission mechanisms, and recipients of positive leadership at multiple levels of analysis (see Figure 1; Skubinn et al., 2019; Yammarino et al., 2005). Finally, we discuss critiques to positive leadership, attempting to answer their concerns, and its implication for research and practice.

Figure 1. An integrative multilevel model of positive leadership in organizations.

Figure 1 can be interpreted as follows. First, the vertical axis captures levels of analysis (individual, group, and organization), whereas the horizontal axis captures the relations between leaders and different organizational actors. Second, reciprocal same-level effects are illustrated at the center of Figure 1, capturing the influence mechanisms between leaders and different organizational actors. Finally, cross-level mechanisms (either top-down or bottom-up) are illustrated following logic of “feed-forward” and “feed-back” loops according to Crossan, Lane, and White (1999). More precisely, the mechanisms by which leaders extend their influence into different organizational actors are operationalized as feed-forward loops (value congruence, similarity, institutionalizing) and the mechanisms by which the social context influence leaders (onboarding and socialization, integration, and internalization) are captured as feed-back loops.

Core Assumptions Across Positive Leadership Theories, Models, and Frameworks

Three core assumptions seem to generalize across positive leadership theories, models, and frameworks. The first core assumption is that individuals internalize and organize their life experiences into a structure of the mind, which is called “The Self” by cognitive and humanistic psychologists (Ryan & Deci, 2002). The Self is “a knowledge structure that helps people organize and give meaning to memory and behavior” (van Knippenberg, van Knippenberg, De Cremer, & Hogg, 2004, p. 827). Thus, self-oriented cognitive processes and adaptive behavioral scripts (e.g., self-awareness and self-regulation, respectively) are core elements of mainstream positive leadership theories, such as authentic and servant leadership (Gardner et al., 2005; van Dierendonck, 2010).

The second overarching assumption is that humans are gregarious by nature. People seek to flourish and thrive by collaborating with others, rather than by exploiting others’ weaknesses. This homo socialis perspective is at odds with the homo economicus view, which is a core assumption in behavioral economics that understands humans as mere “rational maximizers of individual profit” (Gintis & Helbing, 2015; Gluth & Fontanesi, 2016). The gregariousness assumption is a fundamental theoretical for relational approaches to positive leadership, such as the Social Identity Model Of Leadership, (Hogg, 2001a) and Identity Leadership (Steffens et al., 2014; van Dick et al., 2018).

Similarly, a third overarching assumption refers to the nature of organizations. Most positive leadership theories understand organizations as something more than “shareholder profit-maximizing” entities (van Dierendonck, 2010). In other words, employees tend to expect more than a paycheck in exchange for their sustained commitment. Positive leadership styles such as transformational (Bass, 1985), responsible (van Quaquebeke & Eckloff, 2010; Waldman & Siegel, 2008), and meaningful leadership (van Knippenberg, 2020) explicitly depict organizations as entities with purpose, such as being a valuable actor of the societies in which they operate.

Loci, Mechanisms, and Recipients of Positive Self-Leadership

The sources (loci) of positive self-leadership can be internal or external. The primary recipient of positive self-leadership is the leader. Self-awareness is the transmission mechanism for the internal sources of self-leadership, whereas internalization and integration are the two transmission mechanisms for external sources of positive self-leadership. Internalization refers to the process of transforming external regulations into internal regulations, whereas integration refers to the process of incorporating such regulations into one’s sense of self (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994).

The internal sources of positive self-leadership are genetically inherited traits (De Neve, Mikhaylov, Christakis, & Fowler, 2013; Zaccaro, 2007). Several meta-analyses show that intelligence (Antonakis, House, & Simonton, 2017; Lord, de Vader, & Alliger, 1986) and stable personality traits are predictors of transformational leadership (Bono & Judge, 2004; Judge, Piccolo, & Kosalka, 2009). Thus, by engaging in self-aware introspection, individuals can discover their dormant character strengths and start exercising them (Crossan et al., 2017). In turn, self-awareness enables individuals to voluntarily self-determine their behavior (Kernis, 2003; Kernis & Goldman, 2006). As stated in Henley’s poem, positive self-leadership starts by becoming “the captain of one’s soul” (i.e., displaying self-determined behaviors).

Being part of a group with functional social norms and experiencing meaningful life experiences (crucible moments; Byrne, Crossan, & Seijts, 2018) are the external sources of positive self-leadership. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), as individuals grow, they internalize any external behavioral regulation that contributes to fulfill three psychological needs. Further, such regulations are and integrated into their selves by abstracting their context and recasting them as personal values (Hitlin, 2003). For example, the norms of the social context in which an individual operates might prescribe compassionately helping a stranger in need. Thus, if every time the opportunity of being compassionate appears said individual follows the social norm, such behavioral regulation will eventually be abstracted and integrated into the self as the character element of “compassion” and stored under the category of “humanity” (Crossan et al., 2017). Once integrated into the self, character elements such as “compassion” and dimensions such as “humanity” become the standards by which said individual will examine his or her behaviors, and consequently use such information to self-regulate his or her behavior (Ryan & Deci, 2002). The more self-aware individuals are about their character strengths, core values, and integrated regulations, the more that their behavior will be self-determined (as opposed to being externally determined by someone else or a social structure).

Regarding the outcomes of positive self-leadership, SDT claims that self-determination is a source of both hedonic and eudaemonic happiness in general (Ryan & Deci, 2001). For those engaging in self-leadership when in a leadership role, constructive and self-determined behaviors predict eudemonic outcomes, such as subjective and physical well-being (Kaluza, Boer, Buengeler, & van Dick, 2020).

Loci, Mechanisms, and Recipients of Positive Dyadic Leadership

As in any other dyadic relation, leaders and followers are simultaneously sources and recipients of positive dyadic leadership. However, its transmission mechanisms might vary depending on the level of analysis and temporal moment of the dyadic exchange. More precisely, at the dyadic level, the primary transmission mechanism is a positive social exchange between leader and follower (Ilies, Morgeson, & Nahrgang, 2005). Positive social exchanges refer to the high-quality exchanges explained by Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995).

Leaders’ exemplary role modeling and followers’ identification are the two major transmission mechanisms of positive dyadic leadership. Exemplary role modeling is a mechanism by which leaders influence followers to achieve higher levels of self-determined behavior at earlier stages of the positive social exchange.1 More precisely, by becoming behavioral exemplars, leaders invite followers to examine introspectively their character, their core values, and existing behavioral regulations (character contagion).

Followers can also be the source of positive dyadic leadership, by displaying behaviors such as “taking charge of work” (Xu, Loi, Cai, & Liden, 2019). “Taking charge of work” captures behaviors such as delivering work on time and proactively improving procedures. By displaying such behaviors, followers signal leaders that they are trustworthy, loyal, and professional. Thus, followers can use exemplary role modeling to elicit self-determined behaviors in their leaders.

As the positive social exchange matures, followers will likely start seeing their leaders as identification targets (and vice versa), triggering a personal identification process. Personal identification refers to “a process by which individuals realize cognitive overlap between the self and others over time in a relationship” (Humberd & Rouse, 2016, p. 427). Given that role modeling is accepted as a marker of identification (Gibson, 2004), leaders who act as exemplary models will elicit followers’ personal identification, kick-starting in turn, the internalization and integration processes by which individuals incorporate the positive characteristics, values, and behaviors of their relevant others at work (Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, Luthans, & May, 2004). Such identification, in turn, will validate leaders and signal that they attained legitimacy as exemplars in their follower’s eyes.

Extant research shows that displaying leader self-determined behaviors like the behaviors prescribed by authentic (Walumbwa, Avolio, Gardner, Wernsing, & Peterson, 2008), transformational (Bass & Avolio, 1994), ethical (Brown et al., 2005), servant (Liden et al., 2008), and identity leadership (Steffens et al., 2014) predict LMX quality, at least when measured by followers’ reports (Banks, McCauley, Gardner, & Guler, 2016; Eva, Robin, Sendjaya, van Dierendonck, & Liden, 2019; Hoch, Bommer, Dulebohn, & Wu, 2018; van Dick et al., 2018). In turn, LMX quality, as a type of positive social exchange, has been extensively reported as a predictor of follower outcomes, such as increased in-role and extra-role performance, constructive attitudes and psychological states (commitment, justice, psychological capital), reduced role conflict, turnover, and so forth (Dulebohn, Bommer, Liden, Brouer, & Ferris, 2012; Gerstner & Day, 1997; Ilies, Nahrgang, & Morgeson, 2007; Martin, Guillaume, Thomas, Lee, & Epitropaki, 2016; Rockstuhl, Dulebohn, Ang, & Shore, 2012; Schriesheim, Castro, & Cogliser, 1999). Indeed, Gottfredson and Aguinis (2017) in their “meta–meta”-analysis of 35 meta-analyses with more than 3,000 studies and one million participants confirms that LMX is the key mediator that translates all leadership behaviors (consideration, initiating structure, transformational) into performance and Organizational Citizenship Behaviors (OCB).

Finally, positive dyadic leadership has been linked to several followers’ well-being criteria (hedonic, eudaemonic, and even physical well-being; for a comprehensive review, see Inceoglu, Thomas, Chu, Plans, & Gerbasi, 2018). For example, positive dyadic leadership elicits hedonic outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction and satisfaction with the leader) as well as eudaemonic outcomes, such as increased feelings of self-determination and self-esteem through the fulfillment of psychological needs (Ilies et al., 2005; Leroy, Anseel, Gardner, & Sels, 2015). Further, there is accumulating evidence on how positive leadership styles such as authentic (Banks et al., 2016), transformational (Hobman, Jackson, Jimmieson, & Martin, 2011), and identity leadership reduce followers’ emotional exhaustion and burnout, either directly (Banks et al., 2016; van Dick et al., 2018) or through a decrease in frequency of deviant behaviors in their followers (e.g., workplace bullying; Escartín, Monzani, Leong, & Rodríguez-Carballeira, 2017).

Loci, Mechanisms, and Recipients of Positive Team Leadership

The two sources (locus) of positive team leadership are a social group (team) and any person who provides direction to said social group (i.e., the team’s leader(s)). The main recipient of positive team leadership is the workgroup. Our review identified two transmission mechanisms, as captured by the leader identity model and the (social) identity management model (DeRue & Ashford, 2010), with two (assuming and granting) and four subprocesses (identity prototypicality, entrepreneurship, advancement, impresarioship), respectively.

Positive dyadic leadership shapes positive team leadership because individuals tend to gravitate toward and “band with” other individuals who share similar characteristics and congruent values (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001). Thus, if a team leader has been adequately socialized into a virtuous organizational culture, that team leader can shape the collective character of the team for which they provide leadership. Alternatively, if the values comprised in their organization’s culture are not virtuous, positive team leaders could draw from their personal values to shape the collective character of the team they lead. Yet, how can a group determine who will lead and who will follow when there is not a clear candidate leading the team?

The leader identity model of DeRue and Ashford (2010) provides a parsimonious explanation of how a group of individuals construct their leader and follower identities, respectively. These authors claim that leader and follower identities emerge from a two-phase, social construction process, consisting of the “claiming” and “granting” of leadership. This model aims to explain why some leaders might lack legitimacy, even when occupying a leadership position within a firm’s hierarchy. In the first stage of the claiming-granting process, aspirational leaders claim the leadership of a social group. Then, the group decides whether to grant or decline leadership to said leader. Alternatively, a social group can grant their followership to a given individual, even if he or she didn’t make a claim for informal leadership, and it is said individual who decides if he or she “will lead” or not. As the main outcome of this process, the role identities of the group members are actualized, validating leaders and followers’ identities by the group. In turn, leaders gain group-level legitimacy. Yet, this model still does not explain how leaders can leverage the group’s shared identity to elevate a group of individuals into an effective workgroup or team. Fortunately, recent advances in social identity approaches to leadership can cover such a conceptual gap in the model of DeRue and Ashford (2010).

The second transmission mechanism of positive team leadership can be best explained with a recent extension to the Social Identity Model of Leadership (Haslam et al., 2020; Steffens et al., 2014). The first subprocess of such identity leadership has been termed “prototypicality,” and it refers to embodying the norms, beliefs, and behaviors of the workgroup (“being one of us”). In this regard, research based on the social identity model of leadership, which focuses on leader prototypicality, found that those who embody the characteristics of the shared mental representation of the social group are more likely to emerge as leaders (Hogg, 2001b; van Knippenberg & Hogg, 2003) and also are more effective (Barreto & Hogg, 2017). Such findings align with the claiming-granting process proposed by DeRue and Ashford (2010).

Identity leadership behaviors are a positive form of leadership because they elevate the functioning of a group of individuals by creating a collective awareness of their shared similarities, collective interests, and strengths as relative to the strengths of other groups. Despite the importance of leader prototypicality to elevate a group’s functioning, leaders need to not only represent the groups they want to lead but also actively shape and manage the identities of those groups (van Dick et al., 2018). In short, Haslam et al. (2020) proposed three additional identity leadership dimensions. First, identity entrepreneurship captures those identity leadership behaviors aimed at shaping or actualizing the shared identity of the team (“crafting a sense of us”). Second, identity advancement refers to taking action to facilitate the attainment of group goals (“doing it for us”). Third, identity impresarioship refers to behaviors aimed at enhancing the standing of the group in front of other groups (“making us matter”), such as developing structures, events, and activities that give weight to the group existence and embed a shared understanding, coordination, and so forth (e.g., group processes and emerging states).

While research on identity leadership is still in its infancy, early findings suggest that identity leadership dimensions are associated with team members’ self-esteem, perceived team support, and work engagement, with significant standardized coefficients ranging from β‎ = .27 to β‎ = .53. A study revealed that identity leadership also relates to outcomes that facilitate team functioning, such as team identification (van Dick et al., 2018). While there are yet little or no multilevel studies on identity leadership, based on prior findings, it seems plausible that identity leadership will predict a team’s emerging states (e.g., positive work climate) and other outcomes that contribute to their overall team effectiveness (group potency, cohesion, etc.).

Loci, Mechanisms, and Recipients of Positive Organizational Leadership

Positive organizational leadership captures the effort of positive leaders to manage their organization’s culture so that it remains anchored on virtuous, universal values (as opposed to toxic or non-virtuous values). Thus, the primary recipient of positive organizational leadership is an organization’s culture, and its main outcomes concern organizational stakeholders and society at large. The two main transmission mechanisms of positive organizational leadership are organizational learning (Crossan et al., 1999) and corporate social responsibility (Aguinis, 2011). Whereas organizational learning is inward-looking (directed at organizational members), corporate social responsibility is outward-looking (directed at society).

An organization’s culture might be virtuous or not, depending on what values and behaviors are promoted by leaders at the upper echelons of a firm and rewarded by the organization. One of the most well-accepted definitions of organizational culture is

a pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and which is that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.

(Schein, 1984, p. 3)

Schein’s definition of culture implies the notion of institutionalization as a cross-level process by which workgroups generalize and abstract their experiential insights and learnings. Once abstracted to the general principle level, such knowledge can be communicated to other members and applied into different situations (Crossan et al., 1999). Thus, in the same way that the Self is a repository of knowledge that hosts an individual’s character, an organization’s culture is the organizational-level repository that captures a firm’s collective character.

Organizational character matters beyond its impact on organizational financial performance (Di Milia & Birdi, 2010; García-Morales, Jiménez-Barrionuevo, & Gutiérrez-Gutiérrez, 2012). The values and social norms incorporated into an organization’s culture will trickle down into social norms by socialization processes such as newcomer onboarding (Bauer & Erdogan, 2011), and eventually internalize and integrate into organizational members’ selves. Thus, ensuring that organization’s culture is also anchored on virtuous universal values should be a priority for positive leaders. Surprisingly, despite the importance of organizational culture, there is little systematic research exploring how positive leaders contribute to shaping a virtuous culture (some noteworthy exceptions are Liden, Wayne, Liao, & Meuser, 2014; Sarros, Cooper, & Santora, 2008; Toor & Ofori, 2009; Wu, Kwan, Yim, Chiu, & He, 2015; Xenikou & Simosi, 2006).

Corporate social responsibility is a mechanism by which organizations can positively influence the broader context in which they operate. Corporate social responsibility can be conceptualized as “context-specific organizational actions and policies that take into account stakeholders’ expectations and the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental performance” (Aguinis, 2011, p. 855; Wu et al., 2015).

In the same way that positive social exchanges enhance both leaders and followers, corporate social responsibility provides not only the social context but also societal legitimacy for the organization, but it also has been strongly related to veritable financial outcomes (Busch & Friede, 2018; Orlitzky, Schmidt, & Rynes, 2003) and sustainable business practices (Orlitzky, Siegel, & Waldman, 2011). Positive leadership behaviors such as those prescribed by ethical leadership and transformational leadership have been shown to predict corporate social responsibility initiatives, and in some studies, the existence of a constructive culture grounded on universal values mediated such relationship (Groves & LaRocca, 2011; Wu et al., 2015).

Global Positive Leadership: Leadership Principles Across Cultures

A major criticism to extant leadership research is that its mainstream theories are U.S.-centric (Hofstede, 1980). Thus, the behavioral prescriptions that apply to U.S. leaders might not necessarily apply to leaders in those societies who uphold substantially diverse cultural values. Such misfit is even greater for those regional alliances among emerging countries with diverse cultural values, such as the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India and China; Kingah & Quiliconi, 2016). Prescribing a specific set of leader behaviors might then not be the best approach to foster global positive leadership, as what is acceptable in some cultures might not be acceptable in others. Thus, how would a positive leadership model then generalize to non-Western cultures?

Interestingly, cross-cultural psychological research found a common ground to theorize about positive global leadership. Despite the regional variations in cultural norms, certain values and principles seem to be universally endorsed (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Schwartz, 1992). For example, there is a substantive overlap between the six cardinal virtues prescribed in Aristotelian and Confucian virtue ethics: mainly Courage, Temperance, Justice, Humanity, Integrity (understood as Truthfulness), and Prudence (understood as Practical Wisdom or Judgment) (see Crossan et al., 2017; Hackett & Wang, 2012). Similarly, the virtues of Humanity and Transcendence appear as underlying the cultural dimensions identified by the GLOBE study (Humane and Future orientation, respectively; House, Javidan, & Dorfman, 2001). We claim that these virtues are foundational for studies on positive global leadership.

Moving on to more specific positive leadership behaviors, another early finding of the GLOBE project was that the attributes describing transformational leadership tend to be culturally endorsed as indicators of outstanding leadership (Den Hartog et al., 1999). To a lesser extent, something similar occurred for both authentic and servant leadership behaviors (van Dierendonck et al., 2014; Walumbwa et al., 2008). Finally, a cross-cultural study involving more than 20 countries revealed that identity leadership generalizes across major cultural clusters and explains variance above and beyond other positive leadership styles (authentic, transformational, and LMX) on constructive follower outcomes at the individual level (trust, satisfaction, innovation).

Virtuous universal values are a critical component of the present model, as said universal values are the cultural source of constructive leadership principles, and thus, the hallmark of a virtuous organizational culture. The present model claims that through the cross-level mechanism of socialization, those behaviors rewarded and reinforced by a virtuous culture will eventually trickle down to social groups with the organization (e.g., teams). Further, virtuous social norms will be eventually integrated and internalized to their leader’s self. The present model also acknowledges that both positive leaders and their followers are not mere passive recipients of contextual influence. Both leader and followers have individual and collective agency (and the moral duty) to resist the influence of either a toxic organizational culture or a national culture that rewards norms and behaviors that do not align with said universal values.

Critiques to Positive Leadership

Despite the growing evidence suggesting that positive leadership matters for organizations and their stakeholders, this domain of positive organizational behavior is not without its detractors. There are three main criticisms. The first criticism is aimed at leadership research in general, and has been termed the “I like my leader” effect (Yammarino, Cheong, Kim, & Tsai, 2020), which seems a variation of the “romance of leadership” effect (Meindl, Ehrlich, & Dukerich, 1985). The second criticism is the “old wine in new bottles” argument (Banks, Gooty, Ross, Williams, & Harrington, 2018; Banks et al., 2016). Finally, the third and hardest criticism depicts positive leadership as “naïve” and irrelevant for the study of organizational management.

The “I like my leader” effect refers to the notion that at the end of the day, what (positive) leaders do doesn’t directly matter if their collaborators like them, “liking” being a general leadership factor, analog to how general cognitive ability is taken as a general factor underlying the different aspects of human intelligence (Yammarino et al., 2020). This idea is not new, given that nearly 40 years ago, Meindl et al. (1985) showed empirical evidence that the followers of charismatic leaders tend to distort their objective assessments and attributions of “what leaders do, what they are able to accomplish, and the general effects they have on our lives” (p. 76). Such distortions might explain why certain followers are willing to endorse leaders who are incompetent, narcissistic, and highly populist, even after being presented with undeniable evidence of their unethical behavior within a formal leadership role (Monzani, 2018).

The “I like my leader” effect also appears in other non-charismatic positive forms of leadership. For example, a recent study exploring the leader character of populist leaders of three Anglo-Saxon countries (e.g., Trump, Johnson, and Trudeau) reported that those voters who have a strong populist attitude tend to agree less with the idea that strength of character is essential to the role of a prime minister or president (Seijts & de Clercy, 2020). Not surprisingly, this effect was more substantial for Trump voters. Similarly, research on identity leadership revealed that followers are willing to omit breaches in procedural justice and the failure to attain goals of those leaders who are seen as representative of the groups they lead (Giessner & van Knippenberg, 2008; Ullrich & van Dick, 2009). While the “I like my boss” effect might be a real issue in the study of leadership, Yammarino et al. (2005; Yammarino et al., 2020) recommend that to prevent such a “halo effect,” the study of (positive) leadership should abandon the still prevailing leader-centric focus and adopt a multilevel perspective. The model introduced in this article attempts to heed such call while still acknowledging that in the same way that positive leaders can influence followers, groups, and the organization, such social groups and structures can influence the positive leaders as well.

The second critique of the study of positive leadership regards its originality. More precisely, many critics claim that there are empirical and theoretical overlaps (Banks et al., 2018) across the different positive leadership models and their psychometric measures (e.g., the measures for the full range theory and the measures for authentic leadership), suggesting conceptual redundancy (Banks et al., 2016; Cooper et al., 2005; Hoch et al., 2018). Similarly, a network analysis of more than 66 leadership theories revealed that certain leadership models theoretically tend to “band together,” forming “conceptual clusters” (Meuser et al., 2016); or in other words, there is a conceptual redundancy that spans across the myriad mainstream leadership styles, not just positive leadership.

To address such “old wine in new bottles” critique, we echo scholars’ suggestion that leadership research should move toward a more holistic and integrative theorizing (Avolio, 2007) and use diverse measurement efforts (Palanski et al., 2019). Our review revealed that some leadership frameworks are moving toward such integration. For example, the work by Crossan et al. (2017) acknowledges that to be effective, leaders need to develop 11 dimensions of character and use them as guiding principles of leaders’ behavior and decision-making processes. Similarly, the leader character-competence entanglement model (Sturm, Vera, & Crossan, 2017) acknowledges that neither leader character nor leader competencies alone are enough to ensure sustained leader effectiveness. However, as its name suggests, the leader character model (Crossan et al., 2017) is still highly leader-centric and could benefit from an extension to the group and organizational levels. This article attempts such extension by proposing group-level and organizational-level manifestations of character as well as suggesting cross-level processes that facilitate its emergence within social collectives that occur in contemporary organizations.

Finally, a more recent critique is that positive leadership is inherently “naïve.” For example, Alvesson and Einola (2019) depict a positive leader as a “Disneyland-inspired good leader” (p. 383) that is “unhelpful in organizational practice” (p. 384). Not surprisingly, Alvesson and Einola (2019) recommend abandoning the study of positive leadership in favor of the struggle of ideals, focusing on followers and leaders’ relations and the study of the self. Further, these authors call for investigations about cultures, social practices, and societal changes (p. 394). The perspective of this article regarding the critique by Alvesson and Einola (2019) is that while such criticism might be inspiring new research indeed, these and other critics of positive leadership still fail to provide a compelling alternative to the usual call for embracing social, historical, and structural determinisms in disfavor of any individual agency aimed at overcoming the oppressive systemic forces that lead to record levels of social inequality worldwide in the 21st century. Instead, the positive leadership model introduced in this article attempts to illustrate that it is still possible to develop a theoretically sound, multilevel model on positive leadership that extends above and beyond interpersonal influence and answers such calls without neglecting the agency that positive leaders have in shaping a better work environment where their followers, their teams, and even the organizations they lead can reach an optimal functioning level.

Whereas the conversation with such caustic critics of positive leadership is unlikely to be settled in this article, it is essential to signal readers that such critiques derive from incompatible core assumptions about human nature. Alvesson and Einola (2019) seem to assume, as do many other critics of positive leadership, that humans are mere homo economicus. That is, they are individuals whose behavior can be reduced to the alternating effect of “carrots” (rewards) and “sticks” (punishments) that minimizes deviations from established policies and procedures, regardless of whether such norms elevate or diminish them by alienating, and eventually dehumanizing, them. However, the model introduced in this article assumes that the true potential of human nature lies in its altruism, its gregariousness, and its agency over said determinisms. In other words, humans’ behavior in organizations is driven by larger sense of purpose than collecting and spending paychecks from the cradle to the grave.

Implications for Research and Practice

The model of positive leadership in organizations introduced in this article has two clear implications for research and practice. The first implication is regarding what confers the “positive” attribute to a leadership theory, framework, or model. For leadership to be positive, its assumptions and predictions must reflect a deep concern for humans working in contemporary organizations. Thus, leaders aspiring toward a humanistic management might consider refocusing their approaches so that the maximization of shareholder profit becomes subordinate to the welfare of their organizations’ people. Future development efforts could use the present model as a roadmap to help leaders broaden their view on the human aspect of organizational life. To be regarded as such, positive leaders are accountable of (re)shaping a sustainable environment in their organizations so that their members find meaning, thrive, and flourish. Thus, the ultimate mandate of positive organizational leaders is “doing well by doing good.”

The second implication of the present model is that positive leadership is a dynamic construct. Even the most virtuous and positive leader can be eventually suffer a “character erosion” if he or she must operate continuously within an organization whose culture rewards toxic performance (i.e., “winning at any cost”), or that lacks the proper institutional checks and balances to limit the power of their leaders (Monzani, 2018; Sturm & Monzani, 2017). Similarly, the present model acknowledges leadership as a multi-actor, relational process. Thus, while “the bucket still stops at the top,” workgroups and individual followers share some form of accountability in ensuring that their leaders do not abuse their authority. In other words, workgroups and even followers also have true power (and a true responsibility) to remove their “granting” of leadership to those leaders who abuse their power after “assuming the mantle.” In this way, followers and workgroups can ensure their leaders’ behavior remains positive and virtuous.

Concluding Remarks

The model presented in this article aims to help future leaders to embrace a more humanistic view of leadership in organizations. While we acknowledge the importance that leaders’ behaviors have in eliciting positive outcomes for followers, workgroups, and their organizations, this article proposes a more integrative and democratic view of positive leadership. In other words, in the same way that “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes an organization to ensure that positive leadership in organizations is exercised and sustained.

A comedian once stated: “Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind; we think too much, and feel too little; more than machinery, we need humanity; more that cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness; without these qualities life will be violent, and all will be lost.” The present work provides researchers and practitioners with a way to develop such qualities in the hope of promoting more humane leadership in organizations.



  • 1. While authors like Ilies, Morgeson, and Nahrgang refer to growth-oriented exchanges as positive social exchanges, other authors such as Luthans and colleagues have used the term “exemplary role modeling.”