Leadership and Flourishing

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“With your feet on the ground you’re a bird in flight

with your fist holding tight to the string of your kite.”

‘Mary Poppins’ (1964) Disney Studios.

In the Disney movie ‘Mary Poppins’, Mary is very much about the education of the children in her charge and through them, their parents also, George and Mary Banks. A good teacher knows that what you teach the children in the classroom today will most likely be talked about at home tonight. Whilst parents are the first educators of their children, the children nonetheless always have a lesson or two for their parents. What Mary Poppins is really teaching the Banks family, is how to be the best iteration of one’s self each and every day and in turn, flourish as a person.

One widely used definition of flourishing can be found in the work of Professor VanderWeele, Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of the Human Flourishing Program and Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality at Harvard University.

“Flourishing itself might be understood as a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good. We might also refer to such a state as complete human well-being, which is again arguably a broader concept than psychological well-being…I would argue that, regardless of the particulars of different understandings, most would concur that flourishing, however conceived, would, at the very least, require doing or being well in the following five broad domains of human life: (i) happiness and life satisfaction; (ii) health, both mental and physical; (iii) meaning and purpose; (iv) character and virtue; and (v) close social relationships. All are arguably at least a part of what we mean by flourishing. Each of these domains arguably also satisfies the following two criteria: (i) Each domain is generally viewed as an end in itself, and (ii) each domain is nearly universally desired.”

VanderWeele, T.J. (2017). On the Promotion of Human Flourishing. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 31:8148-8156). Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences. See p8149.  

This of course has implications for everyone, individually and collectively. Everyone has a personal challenge to strive to be the very best iteration of themselves, each and every day. Given that we spend around 7 to 8 hours most days of the week at work, the influence of the collective at work is an important consideration, as is the organization itself and its leadership. A cursory glance at the five domains and a revisit to the metaphor of Mary Poppins, reveals Mary to be an Archetypal character that addresses the five domains. In the first domain, Mary seems happy and satisfied with life, though the children and George Banks do seem to be challenging at times. Her use of gratitude and mindfulness is evident (think of the song ‘Anything Can Happen’). In the second domain, we never see Mary Poppins in poor health. What we do see is Mary reaching out to George Banks, who is becoming overwhelmed with stress and the pressures of life. This is an excellent example of the collective at work. In the third domain, Mary seems to find her life work as a ‘Nanny’, to lead others in her care and those she interacts with, to see a more positive vision of themselves. For the Banks family, she effectively becomes their life coach. In the fourth domain, Mary Poppins is constantly teaching the children that good character and good virtues are important in living a good life. Think of Mary Poppins and the children, when she sings ‘Feed the Birds’. Finally in the fifth domain, close social relationships are important to Mary Poppins, as she finds in the character of Bert, a person she can talk to, confide in and trust.

For leaders and the leadership group in any organization, Mary Poppins highlights what and how things could be done. Mary is seen as a leader but her leadership is other focused, not self focused and she finds her fulfilment in that.

Leaders could ask themselves:

  • As a leader when do I take the time to show thanks and gratitude or give my staff opportunities to be mindful at work? How do I know my staff are happy and satisfied with their work?
  • As a leader, how do I model and encourage good physical and mental health? When are there opportunities in the work day, for staff to be engaged in activities that support good health?
  • As a leader how have I shown them the meaning and purpose that the organization and their work has, especially for the community it serves? When are opportunities provided for staff to discern their meaning and purpose, within the organization and more broadly, the rest of the world?
  • As a leader, how do I promote the importance of virtues? What opportunities are there throughout the organization, to develop the character of each staff member?
  • As a leader, how do I ensure that there are positive professional relationships in each team   
  • When do staff have access to a mentor, or coach or trusted colleague?

For leaders wanting to make flourishing a focus, one place to start, might be the website for the ‘Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science’.  Loaded with research into flourishing and the work of Professor VanderWeele and his team, there are also resources and questionnaires that may be of interest.

In 2018, researcher and author in Positive Psychology, Courtney E. Ackerman, shared five qualities that people could check on regularly and focus on developing, if they want to take their flourishing as a person, seriously.

  1. The ability to direct and re-direct your attention. Focus your attention on the things that are life-giving and likely to encourage flourishing.
  1. The tendency to shape your time with intention and for impact. Use time wisely, with a clear focus on the things that will help achieve goals.
  1. The practice of constant improvement. Constantly find ways to improve, practice and grow.
  1. The ability to communicate and listen to others. Seek feedback from others, listen and take advice.
  1. The commitment to positive experiences. Commit to finding joy, happiness, meaning and purpose in life.

Ackerman, C. E. (2018). Flourishing in Positive Psychology: Definition + 8 Practical Tips (PDF). in PositivePsychology.com.

In organizations, culture can either encourage everyone to flourish or impede it. For culture to exist, there must first be people interacting with each other. In fact, every interaction, no matter how brief, impacts the culture of the organization in some way. These interactions can be verbal or non-verbal. A smile as you pass a colleague in the corridor or saying hello to a colleague when they get into a lift, builds culture. It is worth having a broad understanding of culture. Anthropologist, Dr. David Givens provides this definition.

“Culture represents the entire database of knowledge, values, and traditional ways of viewing the world, which have been transmitted from one generation ahead to the next—nongenetically, apart from DNA—through words, concepts, and symbols.”

Givens, D. (ND). What is Anthropology?

Engaging people with respect and dignity is the key. Think of the organization as a village. Like a village, every organization has a Chief and Elders. However, the village needs the villagers themselves to come together, work together, do things together. Collaboration and a realization that the village is greater than the individual is important, but their needs to be the realization that if the component parts, the villagers were to leave, it diminishes and changes the dynamics of the village. In the village, its prosperity, security, health and strength, comes from an understanding that every person in the village has a function, a role in making the village an ongoing concern. The village of course comes together for common events and rituals. Whether it is a friendly game of sport, church services, craft activities, village feast days, storytelling (including ancestral stories). Community and ritual events are equally important in creating a positive workplace culture. As staff return physically back to the workplace after COVID lockdowns, these community and ritual events are needed to rebuild the sense of community and belonging and that must also include Psychological Safety. Like the village, belonging means having a voice that is at least heard and may even be listened to. Fundamental to the local village, is an understood set of common beliefs and values that help bind the community together. Developing staff, not just as future leaders but to help them flourish as well, is a key part of the puzzle. From an organizational perspective, an organization’s culture is the ‘how and the why we do things around here.’

Culture matters because it impacts on most other organizational dynamics; it influences how organizations and their staff manage complexity, ambiguity and change. When organizational cultures are dysfunctional, staff become disengaged, and serious underperformance becomes a risk. 

State Services Authority (Victoria). (2013). Organizational Culture. Melbourne: State of Victoria. P9

Everyone has a personal challenge to strive to be the very best iteration of themselves, each and every day.


To flourish therefore takes you on an inner journey. It is about being in touch with your inner self and in turn your whole self. It is when a person is flourishing, that they will often seem to live in the magic of life. It is about having life and enjoying life in all of its fullness. Engaging in journaling, reflection, meditation, using art and music, are some ways that might allow you to work on your ‘inner-life.’ Education is also the key to flourishing. The classical education of mind, body and spirit, well summarises the broad learning that can help a person’s flourishing. In this respect, the Liberal Arts has much to offer when it comes to flourishing. In organizations, it is imperative that leaders see this process of learning as being critical to the success of the organization and flourishing as the key to the pursuit of organizational renewal and excellence. Tom Peters highlights this in his outstanding book ‘The Excellence Dividend.’

“Managing: As The Pinnacle Of Human Achievement. The greatest life opportunity one can have; mid- to long-term success is no more and no less than a function of ones dedication to and effectiveness at helping team members grow and flourish as individuals and as contributing members to an energetic, self-renewing organization dedicated to the relentless pursuit of excellence.”

Peters, Tom. (2018) The Excellence Dividend (eBook). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p.49.

Al Lopus, writing for the Global Leadership Network, highlights what is needed in organizations that seek to have staff that are flourishing. It really highlights the things that need to be attended to from the very start of the employment process, from recruitment and selection, through to ongoing employment and finally separation.

The eight keys to a flourishing workplace culture are represented by the acronym FLOURISH. 

  • Fantastic Teams
  • Life-Giving Work
  • Outstanding Talent
  • Uplifting Growth
  • Rewarding Compensation
  • Inspirational Leadership
  • Sustainable Strategy
  • Healthy Communication

Lopus, A. (2022). A Flourishing Workplace: Thriving Rather Than Surviving. South Barrington, Illinois: Global Leadership Network.

With ‘The Great Resignation’ becoming almost a new normal in the labour market and the notion of ‘Quiet Quitting’ highlighting the high levels of employee disengagement that some organizations operate with, these 8 keys to flourishing in the workplace, requires leaders to answer the question: Are these 8 keys at work in the organization effectively? If not, why not?

At the heart of this model, is the notion of hiring people who genuinely want to improve themselves, personally and professionally. Enabling them through respect, voice and employee engagement lays the foundations for employee engagement and flourishing. Like it or not, it is immensely difficult, perhaps near impossible, to flourish if the workplace does not encourage flourishing, especially if the focus is on impossible deadlines, high levels of stress and burning through the goodwill of staff, as if it were an abundant resource. Such an approach will yield a toxic culture and ultimately an organization where the good staff leave because they can. Mark C. Crowley in the recent update of his excellent book ‘Lead From The Heart’ examines the notion that a new form of leadership is needed.

“What Ive learned and concluded is that we need a new model of leadership for a new age – a paradigm that acknowledges the humanity – the hearts – in people. To be very clear and direct, this is by no means a feel good strategy. Its based on our collective understanding that its rarely, if ever, an appeal to our minds that inspires any of us to do our greatest work. Its also based upon the understanding that when people flourish, organizations flourish.”

Crowley, Mark. C. (2022). Lead From the Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century (eBook). Carlsbad, California: Hay House. p18.

Even on the most cursory glance of the available evidence, employee engagement needs to improve and that requires a culture change. The importance of flourishing staff, applies across all organizations, not-for-profit, through to, for-profit organizations, government organizations and agencies. For a person applying for a job, how they will go about ensuring their own flourishing, personally and professionally, how they will contribute to the flourishing of others and how the organization will be better because of their flourishing, should be key questions or criteria that an interview panel needs to be across. If the individuals within the organization can collectively flourish and let their light shine, the synergy that is created can only lead to the organization being a light in the world.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

David Ivers is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Great Britain and Ireland)

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