Kim Cameron of University of Michigan: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a positively energizing leader. All human beings are attracted to and flourish in the presence of positive, life-giving energy. The heliotropic effect is universal, so positively energizing leaders can have dramatic impact on helping other people and their organizations flourish.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Cameron.

Kim Cameron is a world-renowned scholar and best-selling author on positive leadership and virtuousness in organizations. In his latest book, Positively Energizing Leadership: Virtuous Actions and Relationships that Create High Performance, he provides in-depth insights based on validated research around the effect of positively energizing leadership on an organization and its employees.

Cameron serves as the William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations in the Ross School of Business and Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at the University of Michigan and consults with a variety of leading business, government, and educational organizations around the world. He is a co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan. Cameron was recognized as among the top ten organizational scholars in the world whose work has been most frequently downloaded on Google.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better.

Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? I grew up in small towns in Utah — small meaning that my goal was to trick-or-treat every house in town. I assumed that I would be a school teacher since my father was in education, and it seemed the logical path to take. During my undergraduate years at Brigham Young University, I changed my major three or four times and landed on a topic that seemed to be an acceptable prerequisite for almost any advanced degree — sociology. I was exposed to an extraordinary scholar, Reed Bradford, who influenced me to be a university professor with my door open to any and all students so I could counsel with and influence them. My PhD at Yale University altered my goal; however, since I came to believe that instead of influencing 30 students face to face, I could positively influence 3,000 or even 300,000 by producing high-impact scholarly research. My university career has been focused on that goal, combining face-to-face interaction with students and colleagues with producing scholarship that matters.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

My first job interview after completing my PhD was at the University of Wisconsin. As a poor university student with three children, I had one suit and was to spend two days on campus giving presentations and being interviewed. I awoke the first morning in a hotel room to discover that my suit pants were split from stem to stern. The front desk did not have a sewing kit or safety pins, but I had one band-aid in my shaving kit. I did my best to tape the pants together and then spent two days making certain to not turn my back on anyone and to keep my knees tightly together while sitting. Since then, I have a safety in on every shirt, coat, and pair of pants that I own — just in case. I am much more empathetic of women in skirts.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have had many people in my life that, without their support and assistance, I would not have succeeded nor, possibly, even survived. Two colleagues — Dave Whetten and Bob Quinn — are especially noteworthy in making a difference in my life. I have published books and scholarly papers with both of them independently, but their most important impact has been on the small, unremarkable support they have provided as a colleague and friend. For instance, at a difficult time serving as the dean of a business school, I received an unrequested but very personal and supportive letter from Dave which offered emotional support and significantly changed my perspective. His letter mattered a lot at a crucial time. Upon returning to the University of Michigan after being dean, I taught an executive education class in which student ratings were less than desirable. In an open meeting to discuss the results of class, the lead faculty member in the course, Bob Quinn, simply dismissed the ratings by saying, “Don’t worry. Cameron will get his sea legs after coming back from being an administrator. He will be just fine.” This single statement saved not only my ego but, potentially, my future teaching career.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I am a firm believer in the power of purpose. My own purpose — the overriding reason for choosing this profession — and the universities in which I have chosen to work share a common purpose. It is to contribute in meaningful ways to our understanding of important societal issues with an ability to do something about them. In addition, the purpose includes the dissemination of the knowledge gained through scholarship in a manner that it can be usefully applied by students and executives.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

For more than a decade, I have studied how organizations succeed in conditions of volatility, uncertainty, uncertainty, and ambiguity — a “VUCA” environment. Empirical evidence confirms that the most important factor in predicting success is the organization’s leader. Strategy is important. Processes are important. Culture is important. Incentive systems are important. But if each of these things is in place but the organization has a poor leader, things probably won’t go so well. Among the most important attributes of leaders — which is frequently ignored — is their positive energy. A great deal of evidence confirms that positively energizing leadership produces successful performance in organizations. Positive energy, in fact, is far more important than the influence, personality, information, or the charisma of the leader. Several kinds of energy exist — physical energy, emotional energy, and mental energy all of which diminish with use. If I run a marathon, take final exams, or involve myself is an intense debate, I become exhausted and need recuperation time. The only kind of energy that elevates with use is positive relational energy. We never get exhausted around people with whom we have loving, supportive relationships. Positively energizing leadership is characterized by an abundance of relational energy, so these individuals are not exhausting to us but are elevating and life-giving. Importantly, anyone can be a positive energizer, and title or hierarchical position are not related to positive energizing.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

At least three things sustain my motivation and drive. One is the support of my family including an incredibly patient, loving, and helpful wife along with seven children and 25 grandchildren. Almost everything else pales in comparison to that influence.

A second is the thrill of uncovering evidence that we really can make a difference as a result of the research being conducted. A third is the colleagues in my university. We have three criteria by which we hire new faculty members: (1) they must be world-class scholars; (2) they must be great teachers; and (3) they must be net positive energizers. They must add more positive energy to the system than they extract. This means that we do not hire selfish, self-aggrandizing, egotistical people. I have at least 15 colleagues who are committed to helping me get better every day.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

All human beings flourish in the presence of light or of positive energy. This inherent tendency is known as the heliotropic effect, a concept adapted from a phenomenon typically ascribed to how plants respond to the sun’s rays. The evidence verifies that all human beings respond favorably to and are renewed by positive energy. The type of energy that is most powerful in affecting performance is relational energy, and it is created and enhanced through the demonstration of virtuous actions (e.g., generosity, compassion, gratitude, trustworthiness, forgiveness, and kindness) on the part of leaders. The science clearly verifies that virtuousness — especially as demonstrated by leaders — produces extraordinarily positive outcomes in individuals and their organizations (e.g., profitability, productivity, quality, innovation, customer satisfaction, employee well-being), particularly in trying times and in situations of loss or grief.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Mandating that employees behave positively, think happy thoughts, or be cheerful when they are depressed, anxious, or experiencing emotional pain produces false positivity. It is inauthentic, disingenuous, dishonest, and untrustworthy. The reason virtuousness in leaders is so crucial is precisely because it helps people cope in a genuine and authentic way. Positive energy increases rather than decreases when virtuousness is displayed. For example, studies show that individuals who suffered the loss of loved ones but who subsequently became stronger as a result, learned to appreciate life more, and flourished personally had experienced virtuous actions — compassion, authenticity, kindness, and higher purpose. Evidence suggests that organizations as well as individuals achieve significant improvement in trying times when leaders are the role models of virtuous behavior. For example, the former CEO of Prudential Retirement, John Kim, credited positively energizing leadership for the dramatic success achieved by his organization: “Implementing positively energizing leadership was initially seen as just being positive — smiles. It became clear, however, that this was a significant change. . . There is no end, no final grade. This is about changing our culture, our strategy, and our approach. It is not a destination or a conclusion but a process. I will know that we have succeeded when customers and employees see us as above average in all the technical aspects of our business, but then by succeeding above all understanding . . . If I wanted to stop this movement I couldn’t. It’s way beyond my control. People are doing things now that are self-perpetuating.”

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Being a positively energizing leader does not mean being soft, fluffy, tolerant of low performance, or not holding people accountable. The best positive leaders, in fact, help us achieve more than we thought we were capable of. They give negative or corrective feedback in a way that helps us flourish and that strengthens the relationship rather than diminish it. One way in which bad news and negative feedback is positively delivered is by using supportive communication. Supportive communication is based on eight principles, but one of those principles (descriptive rather than evaluative communication) is especially effective in delivering bad news. It involves three steps: (1) Describe as objectively as possible the behavior, the situation, or the incident. (2) Identify the consequences, the negative outcomes, or your own feelings about the behavior, situation, or incident. (3) Suggest a more acceptable alternative. This eliminates blaming, labeling, defensiveness, and arguments and focuses, instead, on identifying acceptable alternatives for moving forward. (See my book, Developing Management Skills.)

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Fluctuating directions from national leaders and institutions, contradictory scientific findings, and a barrage of social media advice for how to cope with the anxiety, stress, and apprehension often produce more confusion than clarity. In such circumstances, an important principle becomes even more relevant: In order to effectively manage turbulent circumstances, we must identify something that is stable, universal, and constant. Consider the case of John Kennedy Junior. He was flying his private plane from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts when the conditions became dark and cloudy. He had been trained to fly by sight navigation but not by instrumentation through conditions of invisibility. He ended up flying the plane into the ocean, killing himself, his wife, and her sister. He had not known he was headed toward water. When the plane’s black box was recovered, it was discovered that he had actually been accelerating toward the ocean, erroneously assuming he’d been climbing in altitude. When everything in the environment is changing, it is impossible to effectively manage the circumstances, especially over the long term. Something must be constant in order for people to navigate change effectively. Positive leaders articulate a vision of abundance, demonstrate virtuous principles themselves, and reinforce these universally accepted standards throughout the organization. A stable, universally accepted set of values, purpose, and vision of abundance in a sea of change helps the organization navigate more effectively.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

PRINCIPLE: Every living system — from single-cell organisms to complex human beings — is inclined toward positive energy and away from negative energy, or toward that which enhances life and away from that which detracts from life. This is called the heliotropic effect, and abundant scientific evidence confirms its presence in human beings.

SUGGESTION: Not only leaders, but every individual, can capitalize on the heliotropic effect in their leadership roles, in their relationships, in their marriages, in their work, and with their children. Every person can enhance and engender life more than detract from life. All can be a source of thriving for other people by behaving in ways that are virtuous. This kind of behavior is not limited to senior executives and can positively affect performance throughout the system.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

In addition to ignoring or failing to manage positive energy in organizations — that is, not recognizing, rewarding, hiring, or promoting positive energizers — organizations mostly ignore another important principle, namely, that contribution is more important in predicting performance than is recognition or reward. To illustrate, in a study of multiple sclerosis patients, half of the patient participants were assigned to receive a phone call each week in which another person expressed love, support, and concern to them. The other half of the patients were assigned to place a weekly phone call to someone in which they offered love, support, and concern to that person. At the end of the two-year period, patients were assessed on five factors: well-being, self-efficacy, physical activity, hope, and depression. An eightfold difference between the two groups was observed. Patients who placed the phone calls were eight times healthier on these five outcomes than were patients who received the phone calls.

Another study of individuals who had recently lost a spouse showed that those who provided instrumental support to others had no depression six months after their loss compared with substantial and lasting depression among those who merely received support but did not provide it. No receiving-support factors were positively correlated with an absence of depression, but giving-support factors were significantly correlated. (These are just two of multiple studies.)

The point is, when employees do especially well, they usually receive recognition or rewards, but seldom do organizations provide opportunities for these employees to contribute to someone else as a result of their high performance. Contribution is a more important predictor of subsequent performance than is recognition or reward.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

In a study of 40 financial services organizations over a two-year period, we accounted for almost half their financial performance as a direct result of implementing positive leadership and positive practices — by far the strongest predictor. Furthermore, employee engagement, voluntary turnover, customer retention, and innovation scores rose substantially above industry averages. Another study of 30 hospitals showed improvement of almost 10 times industry average in nine effectiveness indicators as a result of the same positive leadership practices. Interventions included gratitude practices, contribution practices, relationship-building practices, feedback practices, strength-building practices, and trust-building practices. But the most important predictor of all was positively energizing leadership. Positively energizing leaders inspire others by clarifying and advocating profound purpose and meaning in the work, are trusting and trustworthy, expect and foster high standards, gather and deploy other positive energizers in the organization, focus on contribution goals more than achievement goals, and help other people flourish (customers and employees) without expecting a payback. These positive practices are not scripted and controlled from the top, but they are often generated by the innovativeness of employees given the opportunity to implement on their own.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

A large number of practices are available for achieving extraordinary success in trying times (many are described in my books, Positive Leadership, Practicing Positive Leadership, and Positively Energizing Leadership), including exhibiting and fostering positive relational energy throughout the organization. One company with 69 different organizations in 12 regions throughout the world expressed a desire to become a more positive and successful organization. One strategy was to identify positive energizers — 46 were selected — train them for two days in positive leadership and positively energizing practices, and assign them to “infect” 90 percent of the 135,000 members of the company with positive practices and positive change in 90 days — a 90-in-90 challenge. More than 96 percent of the employees were infected in 90 days and company performance scores increased substantially over the next year.

A second strategy is to merely expose individuals to the findings regarding positive studies, positive practices, and a positive approach to leadership. In a set of studies, college professors in 14 different disciplines taught their classes by implementing a positive approach and using positive practices, and then various outcomes were compared with the same class taught the year before by the same instructor. Student attendance went up 10 percent; average grades increased more than half a point; test scores increased more than 10 percent; and student satisfaction ratings increased more than 10 percent. Still another strategy was to ground the reward and incentive systems in the organizations to attaining a profound purpose rather than merely completing the job. For example, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal was created in 1951 to produce the triggers that went into the nuclear weapons produced by the United States during the Cold War. At the conclusion of that war when the USA announced the intent to cease production of nuclear weapons, Rocky Flats was left with tons of nuclear waste — plutonium, uranium, beryllium, and other highly toxic materials. A blue-ribbon task force of energy experts estimated at least 70 years and $36 billion to clean-up and close the Rocky Flats arsenal. The company that won the contract — which had been exposed to and was practicing positive leadership strategies and applications — finished the job 60 years early and $30 billion under budget. This is among the most dramatic organizational change successes in the history of our nation, and much for the success was due to positively energizing leadership and positive practices. (See my book, Making the Impossible Possible.) The profound purpose changed from just cleaning up a dangerous mess to keeping the planet safe, keeping grandchildren and generations yet unborn safe, and accomplishing a mission that had never been attempted in the history of the world.

A third high impact strategy is to institutionalize gratitude practices throughout the organization — i.e., gratitude journals, gratitude walls, gratitude letters to families, and so forth. Several studies have been conducted in high school and college classrooms in which students were assigned to keep a journal during a semester — half the students were instructed to write down each day things for which they were grateful, and the other half wrote down events, interactions, or problems they encountered. At the end of the semester, students who kept gratitude journals were physically healthier, had higher academic performance, exhibited more creativity, and had higher attendance records than those not keeping a gratitude journal. In organizational research, gratitude has been associated with improvements in productivity, quality of outputs, profitability, innovation, customer retention, and employee turnover. Among organizations facing trying times and difficult challenges (such as downsizing or pandemic lockdowns), resilience and financial performance have also been shown to be significantly higher in organizations with high scores in demonstrating gratitude.

Fourth, a frequent complaint regarding our current culture involves the lack of trust in our nation’s leaders, the media, and most business, educational, and religious institutions. Trust in our society is at an all-time low. Empirical evidence confirms, however, that uncertainty and ambiguity are significantly reduced when trust is high, especially in leaders, and complex, ambiguous situations can be managed more efficiently. Flexible work arrangements and teamwork become more feasible. Innovation and risk-taking increase. Productivity improves as much as tenfold. Reciprocity among employees escalates. Expressions of gratitude are more frequent. Prosocial behavior and unselfish service accelerate. Generosity and sharing with others increase. Cooperation improves. Most importantly, the interpersonal relationships that provide positive energy are strengthened. Trusting relationships are almost always energizing, but positive energy is destroyed quickly when trust, honesty, and integrity deteriorate. Not surprisingly, telling the truth, being dependable, and demonstrating competence help strengthen trust.

Fifth, the fundamental motive of positively energizing leaders it to help others flourish. This is accomplished primarily through virtuous actions. The irony regarding virtuous actions (e.g., kindness, generosity, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, courage, trust) is that, whereas they produce extraordinarily successful outcomes in organizations, they don’t need to in order to be valuable. If I am kind only to get a payback, it ceases to be kindness and becomes manipulation. So, virtuousness is its own reward. Yet, organizations and individuals flourish more abundantly in the presence of virtuousness. One simple example of this outcome comes from an acquaintance who is a senior executive and has a young daughter who hated to go to school. This child would hang on to her mother’s leg when it was time to go to school and would cry when her mother dropped her off, making the mother feel terrible. The girl’s teacher suggested that the mother ask the child to report on the best thing that happened during the day as a way to help her focus on something positive. Asking that question each day after school improved the situation somewhat, but it the symptoms didn’t resolve. The mother decided to change the question to “What is the best thing that you did for someone today?” Somehow, that made the difference. The child was excited each day to report on what she had done for someone else during the day at school. The payoff came when they took a trip to Disneyworld. They visited a restroom where a cleaning lady was present. Often, these service personnel are ignored or treated as just being in the way. This child went up to the cleaning lady and said, “I hope you have a magical day today.” The woman began to cry. She replied, “I have worked here for 14 years and no one has ever wished for me to have a magical day.” That incident, the mother reported, was the payoff — her daughter was consistently looking for ways to make a difference, to help someone else flourish, or to foster positive relational energy by making a small contribution every day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a positively energizing leader. All human beings are attracted to and flourish in the presence of positive, life-giving energy. The heliotropic effect is universal, so positively energizing leaders can have dramatic impact on helping other people and their organizations flourish.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Kim Cameron of University of Michigan: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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