Do happy people make better leaders?

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Leadership?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of Work is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Typically, when we envision successful leaders, we think of people who are charismatic, who know how to take control of a room, and who are comfortable in positions of power.

In fact, research suggests that extroversion is generally a strong predictor of successful leadership.

Yet a new analysis of 25 studies, led by Dana Joseph, Ph.D., at the University of Central Florida, complicates the idea that simply being outgoing is enough to make you an outstanding leader. Now, researchers say that positivity is key: Generally happy people make better leaders than Debbie Downers.

The analysis zeroed in on the relationship between trait positivity (or the general tendency to respond positively to situations) and several leadership criteria, including leadership effectiveness.

According to the findings, trait positivity was an even better predictor of effective leadership than extroversion or neuroticism (emotional instability). 11% of the variance in leadership effectiveness was due to trait positive affect.

On the other hand, negative affect accounted for 6% of the variance in leadership effectiveness. In other words, the less happy someone was, the less likely they were to be a successful leader.

Interestingly, not all negative emotions were linked to low leadership effectiveness. Those who displayed anger were more likely to be perceived as poor leaders than those who displayed anxiety.

The key link between happiness and leadership effectiveness, the researchers say, seems to be that happy people typically demonstrate a certain management style called transformational leadership.

Transformational leaders are skilled at things like inspiring and motivating their team, stimulating their team intellectually, and mentoring their subordinates. (A popular example of a transformational leader is Nelson Mandela.) Studies have found there’s a strong correlation between transformational leadership and leadership effectiveness.

The analysis found that positive affect accounted for over 20% of the variance in transformational leadership. Moreover, that effect remained even after the researchers controlled for extroversion and neuroticism.

Joseph says she suspects that it’s simply easier to be a transformational leader when you’re a happy person.

“Positive affect allows people to be inspirational, motivational, and respectful of their followers,” she says. “For example, when you’re giving a speech to a room and you have difficulty being positive, it’s difficult to inspire and motivate the audience.”

As for the practical implications of the research, Joseph says it’s not realistic to say that aspiring leaders should force themselves to be consistently happy for the sake of getting promoted.

Instead, the takeaway seems to be that hiring managers trying to predict which individual will be an effective leader should place greater importance on candidates’ overall happiness levels. Joseph says companies can even measure trait positive affect using the same tools that researchers typically use, such as the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule.

Perhaps happiness is something that organizations already value in their leaders on an intuitive level. But given these findings, it would make sense for employers to make trait positivity assessments a more standardized part of any leadership selection strategy.

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider UK. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Shana Lebowitz is a strategy reporter for Business Insider.

Image: A share trader reacts as she sits behind her trading terminal at the Frankfurt stock exchange, October 13, 2008.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
LeadershipJobs and the Future of WorkBusiness
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

4 ways governments can serve their constituents better and catalyse innovation

Andrew Pickersgill, Scott Blackburn and Jörg Schubert

June 17, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum