The Joyful Leader

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.

“If you are joyful, it will shine in your eyes and in your look, in your conversation and in your contentment. You will not be able to hide it because joy overflows.

Joy is very contagious. Try, therefore, to be always overflowing with joy wherever you go.

Mother Teresa. (2010). In the Heart of the World (eBook). Novato, California: New World Library. p.28.

February is that awkward month. It always seems to fall short of a couple of days, suffering burnout from the juggernaut months of December, ending one year and January starting the next. In the middle of a 28 Day month, we celebrate love via Valentine’s Day and more broadly the quality of our relationships with other people. It’s almost as if the calendar periodically reminds us: “Don’t forget to be loving! Don’t forget to let the people you care about know that you do care about them!”

If you see leadership as a process of influence, you are not going to influence people if they are not listening. To get them to listen to you, requires you, the leader, to have a positive relationship with them. There is a subtle difference between hearing what is being said by a leader and actually listening to them. Leadership is about relationships. So here is the next question. When you find yourself in either a professional or personal relationship, do you find it works best if the other person is also generally happy, calm, and grounded, giving lots of positive energy, or does the negative unhappy person work better for you? Most people would go with the positive energy, the happy, calm, well-grounded person and as a result, buy-in of the leader is more likely and the process of influence is more achievable. For the bonus question: as a leader, when was the last time you smiled at your staff, maybe even shared a laugh with them? All of this points towards notions of being a joyful leader.

This information isn’t just useful to those in leadership. It is just as valuable in the recruitment process. Generally, interview panels are trying to ascertain if you would be a person that others on staff could warm to, relate to, engage with. The person that has an abundance of positive energy is more likely to engage with the panel and present a positive, life-giving vision for the role should they be appointed. It’s not really ‘Rocket Science’ but it is Neuroscience, as Paul J Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology, and Management at Claremont Graduate University, explains.

“I have tested oxytocin release in the bedroom, board room, and bivouac. It occurs everywhere. I have documented more than a dozen ways to stimulate oxytocin production in my experiments. All it takes is a positive social interaction without too much stress or testosterone. Oxytocin just might be the molecule that makes us human. At least it is the molecule that creates our humanity. By understanding a little about the neuroscience of oxytocin, you can harness humanity at work. Believe me, the people at work want this. A key takeaway from this chapter is that culture is not static. It evolves as the people and purpose of the organization change.”

Zak, Paul, J. (2017). The Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies (eBook). New York, NY: AMACOM. p.25-26.

So, Mother Teresa was spot on in her statement about joy. It fuels a positive emotional state, triggering the neuroscience of Oxytocin to kick in and through iterations of joy-filled moments, it soon becomes contagious. The upshot of course is that people like to work with and work for, someone who is full of joy. Sure, every now and then that leader’s humanity will show a more somber side. That degree of vulnerability, that reflection of a leaders true ‘humanness’ is not a sign of weakness. It reminds us all that we are human and empowers others to embrace their humanity. It makes the leader more endearing. It also contributes to the building of a culture of ‘Psychological Safety’, one in which the power of positive interactions can be learned, according to Harvard Business School Professor, Amy C Emondson, in her book “The Fearless Organization.”

“My view is that, yes, most people can learn. And that includes learning to better understand the positive and negative effects that one’s mindset and behavior is having on others. Most people would prefer to have positive rather than negative effects on others, and most are also able to gain insight on how to do that, with training and coaching.”

Edmondson, Amy, C. (2019). The fearless organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth (eBook). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p.196.

From a cursory glance of some of the available literature, it is not a stretch to suggest that as humans, we prefer to be in an emotional state of joy. What’s more, our brain enjoys it too! Joy is often associated with other positive states of being. How many times have you seen a Christmas card that wishes you the ‘Peace and Joy of the Festive Season’? Joy and peace often go together. They occur through internalization. Put another way, your interior life is where they are processed and reside. As a leader, they become manifest for example, in your ‘Adaptive Leadership’. Joy is that place where all seems to be right with the world. Its cousin, happiness is from an external trigger. Anthropologist Victor Turner explains with eloquence, happiness as a state of flow. The trigger is external but secondary to the sense of flow that it creates.

“To flow is to be as happy as a human can be – the particular rules or stimuli that triggered the flow, whether chess or a prayer meeting, do not matter.”

Turner, Victor (1982). From Ritual to Theatre, New York City: Performing Arts Journal Publications. p.58.

Another Anthropologist, Douglas Davies, working from a Phenomenological perspective, likens states of joy or sorrow to a ‘smell of emotion’. What he demonstrates and concludes is that joy is found in and manifested from a deep internal place for us humans and its liminality or threshold is unique to the individual. What might be found joyful for one person might be sorrowful for another.

“In a smell, my emotion and my ideas cohere to yield a joy or sorrow, as the history of that smell may dictate. And it is just such smells that cannot be interpreted, language-like, for others to understand. As such, the concept of the smell serves a fundamental purpose as a symbol of and for an entire category of human life experiences that are profoundly important, but that cannot be directly interpretedfor others.”

Davies, Douglas (2020). Anthropology and Theology (eBook). New York City: Routledge. p.190.

If you see leadership as a process of influence, you are not going to influence people if they are not listening.


Writing in Psychology Today, relationships expert Sandra L Brown, highlights the subtle differences between happiness and joy. 

“Happiness is external. It’s based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts…You’re probably thinking, “Sure, you can have joy in those circumstances if you are Mother Teresa!” Joy is almost a mystery, isn’t it? It’s a spiritual quality that is internal…When stuff, people, and the problems they bring fall away there is a stillness. Only in that stillness can we ever find the joy that resides inside of us, dependent on nothing external in order to exist.”

Brown, Sandra, L. (2012). ‘Joy vs. Happiness’ in Psychology Today. 

Ultimately humans need both to thrive. Happiness and joy is an attractive positive state, or as Mother Teresa says, a contagious state to be in. If we want people to thrive in life, that must include a deep desire by those in leadership to include the workplace. A happy, joy-filled workplace is likely to spurn high levels of trust which Professor Zak in his studies has demonstrated as one sure way to improve profits and productivity. Anybody that has ever studied Governance would be familiar with the mantra “the fish rots from the head” (See Bob Garratt (2010). ‘The Fish Rots from the Head’. London: Profile Books). If that’s true, then it makes sense that happiness and joy would spread like a contagion from the Board down. For leaders of any organization, it creates a Kairos moment, an ‘it’s time now!’ moment to embrace happiness and joy across the organization. Pope Francis in a homily in 2017 highlights what flows from contagious joy. 

“A joy that generates life, that generates hope, that makes itself flesh in the way we look at tomorrow, in the attitude with which we look at other people. A joy that becomes solidarity, hospitality, mercy towards everyone.” Pope Francis, Homily 25 March 2017.

Pope Francis. (2019). Happiness in this Life (eBook). London: Pan Macmillan. p.79. 

This has implications for any person in leadership. Great leaders offer a joy-filled leadership. By that, following on from the words of Pope Francis, is a leadership that is life-giving, gives hope, colors our outlook and our attitude towards others. A joy-filled leadership that manifests in solidarity with the team being led, hospitality that caters to a sense of belonging, and a mercy that recognizes the vulnerability and ‘humanness’ of each person on the team. The upside of this approach, one which requires an authentic joy on the part of the leader, is obvious. This reinforces a culture of joy and trust. The work of Professor Paul Zak informs us that a high trust organization has a high level of employee engagement which translates into better productivity and better outcomes for all. 

This of course begs many questions. Why not focus on these positive states? What is the alternative? Tom Peters in a reference to the work of Richard Sheridan, asks this very question. His answer is enlightening. 

“I must ask … WHY NOT?

Before dismissing this as pie in the sky and moving on, consider each of these words: 

  • Emotional
  • Vital
  • Innovative
  • Joyful
  • Creative
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Excellent 

And then consider their opposites. Do we want an unemotional, joyless, uncreative, un-excellent workplace? Of course not. 

So, I say again: WHY NOT? Why not shoot for the moon?”

Peters, Tom. (2018) The Excellence Dividend (eBook). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p.53. 

Richard Sheridan’s contribution to this discussion on joy-filled leadership draws on his experience establishing a competitive ‘System Software’ company, Menlo Innovations. The bedrock upon which his company is built is, ‘Joy’! From himself as president of the company, through to his front line staff and their engagement with clients, the mantra is ‘Joy’ and it colors everything they do. 

“You cant embark on a journey to establish a culture of leadership for its own sake. Your organization must serve a higher purpose. We figured out that at Menlo we wanted to produce joy in the world for others. The things we do are in pursuit of that joy. Bringing joy to others gives us pride in what we do. That brings us joy. A purpose-driven culture is hard to build. It takes time. You will suffer setbacks…Remember that youre doing it for the right reasons. And it will result in joy. Most of us are willing to work very hard for something important…Some ask, How did you do it?” You might answer, I dont know how I did it, but I do know why.””

Sheridan, Richard. (2018). Chief Joy Officer (eBook). London: Penguin. p.104. 

In the context of leadership: a government agency, a company, a not for profit, etc., building a culture of joy and trust may well mean a complete reorientation of the organization. A rethinking of a structure that would make this happen. A rethinking of the type of person that should be employed. A rethinking of how this might lead to people striving daily to be the best iteration of themselves through their work and how this joy might have a positive impact on customers/clients and suppliers. For the candidate applying for a position in an organization that has embraced ‘joyful and joy-filled leadership’, how they demonstrate themselves as being a joyful person, who will joyfully engage with others, will be critical to them winning the position. It necessitates a complete rethinking on what the job interview should be like. Remember too, the inherent link between trust and joy as Stephen M. Covey reminds us. 

“Theres no getting around the fact than in todays flat, global economy, trust is essential to prosperity. In our personal and family relationships, trust is essential to satisfaction and joy. And the truth is we can establish it. We can grow it. We can extend it. We can restore it. We can become personally and organizationally credible. We can behave in ways that inspire trust. We can increase speed and lower cost in every dimension of our lives.”

Covey, Stephen M. (2012). Summary: The Speed of Trust (eBook). Brussels, Belgium: Primento. p.26.

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