Are you ready to take up the challenge of positive leadership?

More than ever, leaders and managers of organisations across the world are facing what some experts refer to as VUCA times – the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity within businesses and society. Big data, artificial intelligence, sustainability, and managing innovation are just some of the challenges that leaders everywhere are facing.

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It is not surprising therefore, that leaders (and organisations) are looking to develop both technical (analytical, strategic) and human skills: competences that will enable leaders to flourish in these complex times. More importantly, they will help them become positive actors of change who can empower and engage their co-workers, their team, and their organisation.

The notion of “positive leadership” has been initiated from positive psychology (e.g. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and positive organisational behaviour (e.g. Fred Luthans and Bruce Avolio). At IÉSEG School of Management (France), it has become a core focus of our Executive, International and Leadership & Coding MBA programmes delivered on our Paris campus. It is also a central course on leadership for Master’s students in our Grande École programme. This decision is linked to the school’s mission to train and educate managers to be “inspiring, intercultural and ethical pioneers of change”.

Like other MBA programmes, the IÉSEG Executive MBA programme seeks to provide participants with the complete set of analytical and strategic skills they will require (financial, business, marketing, project management, etc.). I, however, would like to focus on three human skill elements that we have integrated and ones that I believe are key to developing “positive leadership”.

Developing a strong leadership identity

Leadership is not just a function but an identity. A positive leader needs to be confident (yet not arrogant) that they are able to lead themselves, a team, an organisation, a community, and influence different stakeholders outside the walls of the company. This is why we believe it is so important that managers are trained to become “self-aware”. They should understand their strengths and weaknesses, but also come to see how they are perceived so they can work to build relationships that inspire trust.

They also need to understand, for example, how cultural variables can affect their leadership or how they can react when their employees are resistant to change. These are just some of the aspects we work on during the part-time EMBA, where participants have time throughout the 2-year programme to experiment and hone their leadership identity both with peers at the school (during coaching and courses) and each week when they go back to work at their company.

Opening perspectives and the capacity to adapt

In these complex and changing times it is impossible to predict some of the challenges business and society will face in the future. This is why it is so important that leaders are well rooted and have the knowledge and tools to be able to adapt. We have implemented numerous activities throughout the IÉSEG Executive MBA to help leaders develop an open mind and hone their capacity to adapt.

As just a couple of examples, all of our EMBA students have been on learning expeditions to South Africa, where we expose them to business cultures that are radically different to their own, and ask them to work on consulting projects with local entrepreneurs (some from the townships). We also alternate different cohorts within the EMBA just like we create opportunities for the MBA students to meet their EMBA colleagues (who come from different backgrounds, countries, sectors), and we give them the possibility to take courses in a partner university outside of France.

These are just some of the ways, in addition to knowledge and skills they learn on academic courses, that we try to ensure that they do not fall into a comfort zone and develop the ability to deal with new or unexpected situations. Our aim is that they are able to take on and deal with a level of ambiguity when making informed decisions.

Being a catalyst for positive change

The adjective “positive” does not only qualify the leader, but also their contribution and ambition. In line with IÉSEG’s vision, “empowering changemakers for a better society”, we believe that we have a role to play in training the positive leaders of tomorrow. Behind every theory and practice that is presented at business schools, there are a number of invisible beliefs or assumptions that affect leaders’ ambitions and actions. These may include how we define performance, how we look to our co-workers, etc.

This is one of the reasons we carefully select the participants of the programmes and explain clearly our philosophy and approach to positive leadership. They will be a member of the IÉSEG Executive MBA community, a family which adheres to our values. In a similar manner, we carefully select our faculty (both internal and external) as they play a key role in this process.

Finally, we ask our EMBA students to work on different integrated projects which enable them to link and connect the different elements they have learnt during their programme and to put positive leadership elements into practices. The modular projects and the professional consultancy thesis are examples of this integration.

We believe these are key elements as we ask them to join us on the journey to becoming a positive leader.

Johannes Claeys is Professor and Co-Director of the Executive MBA at IÉSEG School of Management.