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How ‘Positive Leaders’ can deliver sustainable, equitable economic impact

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Positive Leadership is a combination of positive psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness, underpinned by decades of research.

Positive Leadership is a combination of positive psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness, underpinned by decades of research. Image: UpLink

Jean-Philippe Courtois
Executive Vice-President and President, National Transformation Partnerships, Microsoft
Daniel Nowack
Head, Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum
This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • We need to create a more diverse talent pipeline, so leaders emerge who better represent the population, with broader lived experience.
  • Positive Leadership is a combination of positive psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness, underpinned by decades of research.
  • We must all ensure we create organizations that deliver profitable solutions for people and planet. Being a Positive Leader starts with you.

The 2022 “Global Workforce Hopes and Fears” survey by PwC highlights that the “Great Resignation” is far from over. Still, one in five workers plans to quit in 2022, two-thirds of them because they are trying to find purpose and a positive environment.

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Throughout 38 years of work at Microsoft, Executive Vice President and President Jean-Philippe Courtois has developed a leadership approach called “Positive Leadership”, which builds on psychology, neuroscience and years of data. In this interview, Jean-Philippe outlines the details of this concept and the role of social entrepreneurs in supporting its adoption.

Daniel Nowack: Jean-Philippe, you have been a leader at Microsoft for almost four decades. Can you tell us about some of the key changes that you have observed in recent years?

Jean-Philippe Courtois: I think we are living through the most significant change I have ever seen in my career: Corporate responsibility is shifting from a nice-to-have, philanthropic CSR approach to embracing ESG as a core foundation of the corporate strategy. This shift is completely re-wiring the corporate world and brings stakeholder capitalism to life. Already today, over half of all professionally managed money is following ESG guidelines seeking to achieve positive impact, as well as profit. But we must accelerate, given the challenges we face: from the existential threat of climate change, to rising inequality. It’s both a business and moral imperative to “build profitable solutions to the problems of the people and planet”.

Daniel: Your view on leadership is influenced by a strong belief in diversity. Can you tell us why this topic is critical to you?

Jean-Philippe: As the business world re-wires, so must leadership: both in terms of who we think of as leaders and how they lead. I am optimistic that we can do this.

We urgently need to create a more diverse talent pipeline, so leaders emerge who better represent the population, with broader lived experience. Data demonstrate that diverse and inclusive organizations are more innovative and ultimately, more successful. Organizations that fail to commit to transparent targets, create career pathways and foster inclusive working environments, will ultimately fail to create holistic value.

Daniel: Is it up to business to do most of the heavy-lifting in developing a diverse workforce?

Jean-Philippe: Frankly, most of it is. But it actually starts much earlier. We need to re-think the possibilities of education, to support a more purpose-driven society. Students need to be encouraged and empowered to think critically and become knowledgeable but also empathetic individuals. We must build (and fund) a more inclusive education system, widening access to elite institutions, including business schools. Progress is being made but we have to go faster, at scale.

Daniel: We have seen an evolution in leadership concepts over the past years. What is your vision for the next phase of leadership in the coming years?

Jean-Philippe: Through my work at Microsoft and my family foundation, Live for Good, I see a new generation stepping up, with a focus on doing good as both their personal ‘why’ and the purpose of their organizations. This is a new kind of leadership called Positive Leadership. Positive Leadership is a combination of positive psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness, underpinned by decades of research and data. It also serves as a framework to deliver success for businesses, people and the planet.

Daniel: Can you tell us a little more about the concept of Positive Leadership?

Jean-Philippe: Positive Leadership has its origins in academia. The work of Professor Kim Cameron, one of the co-founders of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan, summarizes his work in his best-selling book “Positive Leadership”. Simply: organizations with “virtuous practices” and positive leaders are more productive, profitable and have higher employee morale.

The work of Dr Barbara Fredrikson, Professor at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, where she directs the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory has demonstrated for over 30 years that positive emotions have an extraordinary impact on our physical and mental wellbeing and thus our positive impact on the world around us. When people experience positive emotions, their minds broaden and they open up to new possibilities and ideas. Positive environments enable us to thrive and do better as individuals and organizations.

My own approach to Positive Leadership that I have been practicing for many years, starts with three interconnected circles: Me, Me & Others, Me & The World. This model builds from the individual, who needs a positive mindset and habits; to intentionally creating positive connections and experiences with others; through to purposefully doing good in the community and wider world.

Own Illustration by Jean-Philippe Courtois
Own Illustration by Jean-Philippe Courtois

Daniel: At Microsoft, you are also supporting the work of social entrepreneurs. How is their work relevant to Positive Leadership?

Jean-Philippe: One of the most significant trends I am observing is the rise of the Positive Impact Entrepreneur – or social entrepreneurs in the classic definition. These innovators are looking to drive systems change and commercial success. They are bold in the scale of their ambitions and creative in the products and solutions they are developing. We need this boldness and innovation if we are to deliver against the UN SDGs and drive a more sustainable and inclusive economic growth. What’s heartening is that capital markets are responding with significant investments and established industries are seeing huge value in partnering with these entrepreneurs, to re-wire business for the next decade and beyond.

Image: Source: Dealroom (2022), “State of Impact Startups & VCs in 2022”

Daniel: Do we need a few inspiring Positive Leaders or is it a mindset relevant for everyone?

Jean-Philippe: I have had the privilege to work with, learn from and speak with many positive leaders, including on my podcast. Whether sports coaches, academics or CEOs of multinational organizations, they have all found success and meaning in doing well by doing good. As Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and co-founder of IMAGINE said to me: “There is no reason why all companies cannot have that same mentality of social entrepreneur where ultimately we are trying to put these regenerative business models out there, that actually create enough profit so that we can do more of it and get into this virtual circle of making this a better world, not a world that is just for a few.”


How is the World Economic Forum helping companies track their positive contributions towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalLeadershipEquity, Diversity and Inclusion

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