Are Leaders Who Lead with Positivity Pollyannas?

Courageous Conversations with Dr. Lynn K. Jones

Lotus bloom at Lotusland, Montecito, California.

“Every exemplary leader that I have met, has what seems to be an unwarranted degree of optimism – and that helps generate the energy and commitment necessary to achieve results.” ~Warren Bennis

Are Leaders Who Lead with Positivity Pollyannas?

This was a question that a group of thoughtful and reflective nonprofit leaders grappled with at the first “Courageous Conversations Alumni Forum” of the Courage to Lead training program for nonprofit leaders.  I was honored to facilitate what was indeed a “courageous conversation.”   Sigrid Wright, an executive with the Santa Barbara nonprofit, Community Environmental Council (CEC), wrote her reflections of that day, which are reprinted here with her permission and with the permission of Courage to Lead.

Courageous Conversations with Dr. Lynn K. Jones

Lotus bloom at Lotusland, Montecito, California.

Alumni Forum:  Can We Lead From a More Positive Place?  by Sigrid Wright

That provocative question — posed at the first forum for Courage to Lead alums in early October – sparked an interesting (even courageous) conversation about what it means to lead from a place of optimism, gratitude and positive thinking.

Gathered at Lotusland, the first Courageous Conversations forum was organized by a CTL alumni committee and facilitated by Dr. Lynn K. Jones (, a certified personal and executive coach.

Initially, the group grappled with the word “positivity.” Does that mean overlooking the very stark realities that many of us face every day in the non-profit sector as we address issues often relegated to the darker corners of society?  Does it mean having to be sweet, or worse—nice–when a situation really calls for fire-in-the-belly, call-it-like-you-see-it bravery?  The word “happiness” seemed equally troubling.  For some it suggested a world of forced smiles and mood-stabilizing drugs.

In other words, disingenuous.

Which led, naturally, to a discussion about genuine positivity.  Deliberate, authentic efforts to shift the way in which we think and react–and in doing so, making it easier to think and react from that state more often.  Citing recent studies in the fields of psychology and brain science, Dr. Jones talked about the relatively new emphasis on neuroplasticity:  the brain’s capacity to rewire itself to form new neural pathways.

As with muscles, the more you exercise certain neural pathways, the stronger they become.  The more you train yourself, for example, to look for options when trying to solve a problem, the more options you will begin see in other situations, even when you aren’t looking.

Dr. Jones also discussed the impact that placing genuine, authentic emphasis on the positive can have on those around us.  According to Barbara Frederickson, author of Positivity, maintaining a 3:1 ratio of positive thoughts to negative emotions creates a tipping point between languishing and flourishing.  Tools such as humor, stressing a staff member’s strengths over his weaknesses, or opening a project debrief with an invitation to share “what went right” can create that tipping point.

Sigrid Wright , Community Environmental Council (CEC)

Sigrid Wright has 20 years of experience in non-profit management, currently for the Community Environmental Council (CEC). She leads the annual Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival production team and is co-author of CEC’s Regional Energy Blueprint. She is an alum of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Katherine Harvey Fellows program and Courage to Lead.

Courage To Lead® for Nonprofit Leaders is a yearlong program for the personal and professional renewal of Executive Directors and other top-level nonprofit leaders. Learn more about Courage to Lead.

Do you think that leading from Positivity is being a Pollyanna?  Let us know!

My special expertise is helping leaders and organizations develop high-performing organizational cultures.  If you would like to develop an optimistic and attainable view of the future for you followers—to move from being stuck with “how things are done around here” to how “how things could be done better,” please call me for a free complimentary session at 805.448.7681 or schedule a session using my on-line calendar to discuss how I can support you, your team or your organization.



p.s. I always am interested in what you think about these discussions. Please post your thoughts on the blog…your constructive criticism and support is appreciated!
Dr. Lynn K. Jones, Certified Personal and Executive Coach

Your MOJO Maven

Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach based in Santa Barbara, California and a sought after coach and consultant for organizations and individuals across the US.   Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values using a process of Appreciative Inquiry.  She coaches individuals on achieving their reflected best selves.  An MSW@USC faculty member, Dr. Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment.



  1. Calla Gold on November 13, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    This is a great discussion. Positivity and happiness are essential tools in the arsenal of a successful business person, but what exactly are they? Everyone has a different approach and outlook, and that includes what positivity and happiness really means.

    • Executive Coach on November 14, 2011 at 4:02 am

      I like the idea of thinking about positivity and happiness as a “tool in one’s arsenal.” Just like any tool, if it is going to work it has to be sharp and that is true for happiness and positivity–it has to be genuine and authentic! Thanks for following this blog, Calla! You always add to the discussion.

  2. anon on November 14, 2011 at 4:11 am

    The Pollyanna problem is real. The leader who refuses to recognize problems in an effort to be positive forfeits credibility. What the organization needs is leadership that acknowledges issues and risks but also clearly charts a way forward. The ultimate test of leadership is to motivate the team to help chart that course.

    • Executive Coach on November 14, 2011 at 4:21 am

      You are right. I think what this discussion points to is that it is not an either/or black or white discussion. One can be optimistic while still realistically acknowledging problems. At least that is the objective–admittedly,easier said than done since we are hard wired to be vigilant about any perceived risks, which is precisely why we were having the training!

  3. Keisha Lowe on January 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Dr. Jones,

    In response to your article’s question, “Are Leaders Who Lead with Positivity Pollyannas,” I believe that such leaders are not. The reason is that every living person is encouraged to approach life positively. Also, it is important for leaders to foster positivity in their organizations. It is often said that organizational leaders set the tone of their work environments. However, the key is for leaders to be in tune with reality, to use common sense, and to be human. Leaders must understand the importance of not being naively or superficially optimistic. Superficial or naïve optimism is a character trait that is easily detectable. Also, it is a character trait to cause organizational leaders to lose or to never earn the respect of those under their leadership.

    As the old saying goes, “Moderation is the key with anything that a person does.” Based on this saying, a leader should not shun away from being positive. However, they should not present themselves overly positive to the point that it is not perceived to be genuine.

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