Appreciative Leadership

Sections of this topic

    This blog entry is intended to be a quick and basic introduction to the theory and practice of Appreciative Leadership, as espoused in a recent book by Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom, and Kae Rader. The name of the book is Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization. In the next couple of weeks one of the authors, Amanda Trosten-Bloom, will be sharing some of her thoughts about appreciative leadership in this blog. Amanda will undoubtedly provide a more nuanced and intelligible overview of Appreciative Leadership in her entries. And she may be inclined to respond to the overly simply comparison of Appreciative and Transformational Leadership contained in this blog entry.

    Appreciative Inquiry

    The foundation of Appreciative Leadership is in a theory and approach to organizing known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The fundamental difference between AI and other approaches to working with organizations is that instead of focusing on what is wrong or broken — and trying to fix it — AI seeks to discover the uniquely positive qualities and capabilities of an organization and uses these as the foundation for future development or change. It is a highly participatory approach that involves asking strategically crafted questions about an organization’s collective strengths, achievements, success stories, positive traditions, and visions for the future. AI is based on the assumption that organizations will change in the direction of the questions asked. If inquires are into problems or difficult situations, that is what you will keep finding. And if the focus is on what the organization is at its best, that you will move the organization in that direction, and be able to build sustainable changes that are grounded in these emerging narratives. AI is firmly grounded in social constructionist theory, ideas around the power of generative conversations, and the centrality of relationships and language in the functioning of organizations.

    Definition and Five Core Strategies

    The model of leadership put forth by Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader is extremely well aligned and consistent in theory and practice with AI. The authors define Appreciative Leadership as the relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance – to make a positive difference in the world. With very little effort, this could be made into a definition of AI itself. The authors introduce the Five Core Strategies of Appreciative Leadership: Inquiry, Illumination, Inclusion, Inspiration, and Integrity. Again, nicely consisitent with the basics of the AI approach to organizational change. I will leave the more detailed description of these strategies for upcoming entries – whether by Amanda or this writer.

    Comparison with Transformational Leadership

    The similarity between the Five Core Strategies and the familiar 4-I model of Transformational Leadership are interesting. It isn’t just that Idealized Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, and Individualized Consideration begin with the same letter as the 5-I model in Appreciative Leadership. There is some definite overlap between the two models in terms of how leadership is conceptualized. In my opinion a significant difference is that Appreciative Leadership is firmly grounded in one of the most widely used and innovative approaches to organizing to emerge in the postmodern times. The authors have effectively taken the theories and practices of Appreciative Inquiry and translated these into an attitude and approach to leadership that can be embraced and put into practice in a fairly step-by-step manner. It seems to me that these are not claims that can be made by proponents of Transformational Leadership. Appreciative Leadership is obviously in its infancy compared to Transformational Leadership when it comes to the amount of research and analysis that has been conducted in an attempt to determine correlations with organizational effectiveness and other success metrics. But having AI as its foundation, in my mind, immediately establishes Appreciative Leadership as a legitimate and worthy peer with Transformational Leadership. It will be fun to see whether this opinion holds up.


    Steve Wolinski provides leadership development, organizational change and talent management services to numerous public, private and non-profit organizations.