The Paradox of Positive Leadership

There is a reason that we see so few cases of positive leadership.  Positive leadership does not derive from conventional effort.  It derives from work that most people are unwilling to do.  It is the work of having a higher purpose and engaging in emotional self-regulation.

In a Zoom meeting we were discussing positive leadership.  One person was advocating the importance of presenting the authentic self and engaging in genuine communication.   I pointed out that much of the communication in organization is not genuine.  It is self-interested and transactional.  A meeting ends, and we run to the water cooler with our friends and try to decipher how our enemies were trying to manipulate us.  When someone speaks with authenticity, we note it because it is out of the ordinary.  Much communication in organizations is political and hypocritical.  This sentence applies to me and to you, it applies to all.

A few minutes later in the discussion someone, in essence, said, “Sometimes I am frustrated.  Expressing that frustration is genuine communication.  I do not want communication to be all positive, I want people to express how they really feel.  I want them to demonstrate their most authentic self.”

My knee-jerk reaction was to agree.  Toxic positivity is reflected in the pressure to suppress negative feelings or force a positive face on them.  I often argue that if we have to take into account all of reality.   A comprehensive theory of positive leadership, for example, must include a theory of negative leadership.  Despite my tendency to agree, the last line lingered in my mind; “I want them to demonstrate their most authentic self.”

A question came.  Is the frustrated self, the most authentic self?  The answer would seem to be yes.  The assumption is that what you really feel is frustration, suppressing the frustration, or expressing anything in place of the frustration, would be inauthentic.

Yet, could there be another perspective?  Frustration is associated with a sense of disturbance, disappointment, exasperation, irritation, annoyance, vexation, or infuriation.  When frustrated we often go into fight or flight.  When we do, our ability to connect and perform goes down.  Others tend to respond in kind.  The social network loses energy.

Polyvagal theory examines how the body processes frustration.  The theory suggests that it is possible for people to become skilled in emotional self-regulation.  Recently, in this blog, I gave the example of emotional self-regulation.   A former CEO, an experienced meditator, received news that his son was dead.   He said that when the terrible message came, his body yearned for meditation.

So he mediated.  Ten minutes later, he was fully centered and was able to devote all his resources to informing and then nurturing his wife.  He was operating at a high level of concern and service.  In doing this, he was not suppressing negative emotions because the negative emotions were gone.  Ego transcendence means genuine negative emotions are replaced by genuine positive emotions.  The self he was presenting to his wife was highly authentic.  It was his best self.

There is a principle here.  Positive leadership is predicated on the hard work of personal transformation.  Conventional thinking does not include this notion.   When I work with teenagers and suggest emotional self-regulation, that is, transcending ego and enacting their best self, they often respond that such behavior would be fake.   Teens often are repelled by the notion of being fake.  So they chafe at the notion of emotional self-regulation.

I try to help them understand that when we center ourselves in our highest purpose and values, the self that emerges is both positive and authentic.  The frustrated, negative self may reflect the emotions of the moment, and suppressing them would be less than genuine.  Yet the expression of the temporary, frustrated self is not the expression of the most authentic self.  The authentic self is the self that emerges when we are living to our highest purpose and values.  The most authentic self is the outcome of having a higher purpose and engaging in emotional self-regulation.

Expressing frustration is genuine communication that is sometimes damaging to relationships.  This is why we often suppress the frustrations.  Doing so does not lead to the expression of the authentic self and the wielding of effective positive leadership.  It is when we transcend ego and reveal the authentic self that we become contributive, attractive and inspiring.  It is then that we become leaders who successfully invite others to higher levels of functioning.


  • How is the frustrated self transformed into the most authentic self?
  • What does positive leadership have to do with emotional self-regulation?
  • What personal experiences would allow you to teach these notions?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?