Should leaders make others happy?

Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult. Warren G. Bennis

I was recently part of a discussion where it was put that people perform better uplifted and leaders were responsible for the happiness of their teams.

The underpinning philosophy: positivity activates the heart.

This did not sit well with me.

While I believe we need to be emotionally aware, to be positive all the time is inauthentic.

We go up and down, veering from anger to joy and every emotion in between and that is natural.

What we do with those emotions though, is critical.

We need to be aware that our mood impacts others (although how they respond is largely up to them) and deal with our feelings rather than taking them out on the people around us.

My concern with ‘being positive’ is that it creates an expectation about how we should feel.

We decide that only certain emotional states are okay.

Instead of just experiencing whatever is happening (also called living) we use energy transforming our current state into something else.


Those emotions will change anyway.

And if we can sit in discomfort long enough, rather than trying to convert it into something ‘better’ or create cohesion, we build resilience and strength.

What’s missing from the corporate DNA is diversity (this means different mindsets and not just genders/ages/races/classes though those too are critical.)  In my view we need more discussion and even disagreement, the healthy kind, not less of it.

I think Shirky is onto something when he says argument marks the start of progress although we might only see its rewards in retrospect.

I agree that how we choose to interpret what happens to us and make meaning impacts greatly as Seligman and Achor have shown and as I wrote in an earlier post.

But positive psychology does not ask us to be positive – it asks us to be mindful. These are not the same.

When people pretend that everything is okay and it’s not, they split. The reality and the image do not add up.

We’ve all met the seemingly happy-happy wo/man who’s really seething underneath. We feel this. It’s scary. And it’s fake.

I don’t believe that making happiness a goal is all that helpful (and here are some others who feel the same) however it’s a personal choice.

But I certainly don’t see it as a leader’s role.

Yes, leaders contribute hugely to a corporate culture and the culture to the bottom line.

Tone is set at the top and values that are truly lived (rather than token statements) create norms that have a flow-on effect.

Countless psychological studies have demonstrated the impact of authority, groupthink, and distress on how we behave.

And as Amiable says in the Progress Principle, encouragement, respect, collegiality, clear goals and autonomy can improve performance.

But happiness?

People make good and bad decisions in every emotional state.

We need to understand our personal triggers, which can change too. Sometimes calm is best, at others, good decisions bubble out of the stew.

In the scientific experiment used to back the happiness argument, participants were able to subtract numbers mentally better when in an uplifted state than not.

This was a constructed exercise at a given point in time with arguably, no consequence.

This does not reflect the complexity of real-life where decisions are made where there is no right or wrong answer, and are revised on a continuum with varying consequences and invariably from decision-makers in different states of mind.

An aware leader knows when to be angry, sad, soft, hard, push hard and/or pull back. There’s no manual for leadership and certainly not an emotional one.

Trying always to be happy is to my mind, a futile goal. Expecting to make others happy is setting your self up to fail.

What do you think?



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