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Why energy is so important for leaders

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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by Kim Cameron.

What is the key for producing extraordinarily successful outcomes in organizations? How do we reach spectacular levels of productivity, profitability, quality, innovation, customer satisfaction and employee retention? What is the most important factor that accounts for outstanding success? 

Abundant empirical evidence suggests that the organization’s leader is the single most important predictor -- more important than strategy, culture, incentive systems, processes or facilities. If all of these factors are in place but the organization has a poor leader, success is unlikely.

Of course, not just any leader can create extraordinary outcomes. The good news is that scientific research has identified one specific factor that tends to trump all others: the positive energy of the leader. 

Positive energy elevates individuals, is life-giving, and fosters vitality. In nature, the most common source of positive energy is the sun. It is the life-giving force. All species, including human beings, are inclined over time toward life-giving energy, and they avoid life-depleting or life-endangering energy. This phenomenon is called the heliotropic effect. 

It is important to note that several kinds of energy exist, and not all are life-giving. For example, physical energy diminishes with use. If we run a marathon, we need recovery time because we have become physically exhausted. Mental energy and emotional energy are the same. When they are used, they diminish in strength. Relational energy is different. 

When relational energy is demonstrated, it elevates and renews itself. We seldom become exhausted, for example, by being around loving, supportive people who help uplift us. In fact, we often seek relational energy to become renewed. Relational energy renews us, uplifts us and refreshes us. It is the energy exchanged between two individuals.

The extent to which leaders demonstrate relational energy is the most important thing they do. In fact, my own research has reached three important conclusions about positive energy in leaders. 

  1. Positive energizers are higher performers than others. They are rated as better leaders by others, their own performance is substantially above that of others, and the units they manage outperform the norm. 
  2. Positive energizers affect the performance of others with whom they interact. Other people perform better when they are able to associate with positive energizers. 
  3. Top-performing organizations have at least three times more positive energizers than other organizations. In other words, organizations should not only seek to identify and hire positive energizers, but they can and should develop them. Positively energizing leadership is developed; it is not inherent. Everyone can become a positive energizer.

In studies of hundreds of positively energizing leaders and those that significantly exceed the average performance, a variety of attributes have been identified. Among the most important are: 

  1. Helping other people to flourish without expecting a payback, rather than ensuring that they themselves get the credit.
  2. Expressing gratitude and humility, rather than behaving selfishly and resisting constructive feedback.
  3. Instilling confidence and self-efficacy in others, rather than not creating opportunities for others to grow and be recognized.
  4. Listening actively and empathetically, rather than dominating the conversation and asserting their own ideas.
  5. Being trusting and trustworthy, rather than being skeptical, hypocritical and lacking integrity.
  6. Motivating others to exceed performance standards, rather than being satisfied with mediocrity or “good enough.”

We all know leaders who energize us, uplift us and help us exceed our own expectations. A statement often attributed to John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) accurately captures these leaders' key attribute, with a little modification: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a [positively energizing] leader."

 

Kim Cameron is professor of management and organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations, and professor of higher education in the School of Education, all at the University of Michigan. His book, “Positively Energizing Leadership: Virtuous Actions and Relationships That Create High Performance” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers), will be released in August 2021. 

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