Leading by example: What it means to be a healthy leader


Many words have been written and spoken about workplace culture and specifically, how to help create a healthy and positive place for employees to thrive and flourish.

Although there are different opinions on what a ‘positive culture’ is and how it can be brought about, a common theme across all approaches is that it requires positive leadership. So, what does that actually mean?

Anyone within any organisation can act as a ‘leader’; people don’t necessarily need a title or to have ‘leadership’ listed in their job descriptions to inspire positive change. That said, more often than not, culture and leadership start at the top. And for those leaders, titled or not, leadership is always ‘on’. In fact, according to Michael Schrage, Research Fellow at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, whether you like it or not, you’re always leading by example.

Schrage’s work suggests that a simple thing a leader can be asked is, ‘How do you lead by example?’, and that promoting self-reflection is an important leadership tool. Speaking to the Harvard Business Review he stated that;

“For one, it non-judgmentally presumes people already lead by — and thus set — good examples. For another, it pushes leaders to think harder about how others interpret their behaviour.”(1)


Characteristics of healthy leadership

In his highly-regarded and widely-acclaimed bestseller Positive Leadership: strategies for extraordinary performance, Kim Cameron, co-founder of the University of Michigan’s Centre for Positive Organisations and Professor of Higher Education, describes four enabling strategies when it comes to healthy, positive leadership;

  • positive climate
  • positive relationships
  • positive communication
  • positive meaning.

Sounds good, right? In a nutshell: Positive leaders genuinely and authentically engage in activities that help provide strengths-based, positive energy to individuals and organisations – every day. To do this, they emphasise certain behaviours and ways of interacting, such as:

  • connecting and interacting with others as people, not just employees
  • focusing on solutions rather than problems
  • looking for opportunities
  • being mindful and present in conversations and meetings
  • behaving with integrity, in ways that are considered trustworthy and dependable
  • regularly expressing gratitude and compassion
  • promoting positive emotions, including smiling often
  • helping others to be their best

Consultant psychologist Dr Tim Sharp (known as ‘Dr Happy’) says personal wellbeing is incredibly important for us all – but, if high-achieving leaders want to help elevate individuals and organisations, they should also focus on the basics.

“It’s hard to lead well if you’re stressed and exhausted,” he explains. “Take care of your physical health and wellbeing by keeping active, eating well and ensuring you get enough sleep and rest. There needs to be a healthy body = healthy mind approach, which works both ways.”


Good for employees, good for business

Not surprisingly, positive leadership brings with it plenty of advantages.

Kelloway and colleagues looked at the relationship between positive leadership behaviours and employee wellbeing from 454 employees and found that the positive leadership behaviours may help improve both employee wellbeing and their mood as well.

Along similar lines, Christina Boedker, an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales Business School and leader of a major business research study looking at leadership and organisational performance, has observed that there’s a powerful link between productivity and ‘compassionate leadership’ within the workplace.

According to one of her research projects, which has looked at data from more than 5600 people in 77 organisations – the thing that moves the dial the most when it comes to productivity and profitability is leaders spending more time and effort developing and recognising their people, which includes welcoming feedback (and criticism) among staff.

In conclusion, Dr Sharp says that, “positive leaders find ways to boost their own positivity and wellbeing every day while also being mindful of their team and what they can do to help them thrive and flourish. Those who make this an automatic part of their working day will ultimately enjoy what they do and become great assets to their organisations.”

Cameron K. Positive leadership: strategies for extraordinary performance. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

Cameron K. Positive leadership: strategies for extraordinary performance (excerpt). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012 [Online, accessed Aug 2018] Available from: www.bkconnection.com

Kelloway EK, Weigand H, McKee MC, et al. Positive leadership and employee well-being. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 2012;20(1):107-17.

(1)Schrage M. Harvard Business Review. Like it or not, you are always leading by example [Online] 2016 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: www.hbr.org

UNSW Business School. BusinessThink. The rise of the compassionate leader: should you be cruel to be kind? [Online] 2012 [Accessed Aug 2018] Available from: www.businessthink.unsw.edu.au