Mason Institute for Leadership Excellence
Center for the Advancement of Well-Being | The College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Ask the Director: Why Take a Strengths-Based Approach to Leadership?

Penny potter

In this regular feature, Director of Executive Education Penny Potter (Ph.D., PCC) answers questions that people are exploring in their leadership and well-being journeys.

Our center focuses on a strengths-based approach to working with people and organizations. Why do you think leaders can be more successful focusing on what’s right about them and their organizations than they can be by trying to work on what’s wrong?

“I can give you all the research and statistics that demonstrate greater engagement, productivity, profits, and overall life satisfaction when leaders and organizations focus on strengths and what’s working. That would demonstrate what I know intellectually. But, I also know this in a deeply personal way.

In my 20s, I discovered the roots of strengths-based leadership and positive psychology. In my undergraduate work, I learned about cognitive psychology and the idea that everything we do is a choice, including our own thoughts. Learning this allowed me to see that my own negativity and unhealthy lifestyle was getting in the way of what I wanted to accomplish in life.

Upon graduating, I published a workbook that I had designed to help me create a positive mindset to get through school. That little workbook was basically a self-coaching primer before I even knew what coaching was and before it was a profession. It had some success. For instance, it was used in the Duke University’s diet and fitness program to help participants develop a positive mindset. More importantly, it helped me set the stage for what would be my life’s work. I used the concepts to help me build my first business, providing workshops for women to help them build better body images and self-esteem. In my workshops and retreats I connected with yoga practitioners and vegetarian chefs to help each woman learn well-being practices.

30 years, three more businesses – including one in IT consulting -- and two educational degrees later, I’ve come home to those original roots.  

I’ve always had a goal to somehow make work more human. I know deep in my heart that we all long to be human with one another. I see it in each coaching cohort as students learn how to be with one another in meaningful conversation. That is what transforms our coaching students and totally hooks them into a way of being with others that there is no turning back from. While they may not be able to exactly pinpoint the reason, if you ask any coach she will tell you she loves being a coach. It’s because coaching brings us back to being human with one another.

Coming to George Mason University at this point in my life, having had so many rich learning experiences, I’m now able to do what I set out to do 30 years ago, to help people live more fully – health-fully, mind-fully, and heart-fully. Now, though, I get to do it on a much larger scale. I get to be a catalyst for faculty to do their best, most fulfilling work, and for the leaders we serve, to develop in ways that allow them and those they lead to thrive.

I’m quite honored and humbled to get to do this work every day. It doesn’t get any better than loving one’s work and making a difference in people’s lives.”


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