Appreciative Leadership & Positive Framing

“Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence, and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire teammates and customers.” 

~ Robin Sharma

The world has changed, schooling has changed, and the nature of school leadership is changing as well.  We have shared William Bridges’ ideas of endings, the neutral zone, and new beginnings during our Leadership Networks and in an earlier edition of the Blueprint Bulletin. Remember that Bridges talks about the difference between change and transitions. “Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events but rather the inner reorientation or self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life.”  

Transitions bring uncertainty, apprehension, worry, and stress. While no one can predict exactly what districts will be facing in the fall, what we do know is that it will be different from the start of any school year we have ever experienced. During change, leaders need to show the way forward and instill a sense of energy and inspiration. No matter your role in your district, you are all leaders. One way to instill a sense of energy and inspiration is to approach change from the lens of Appreciative Leadership.  Defined by authors Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, and Rader, “Appreciative Leadership is the relational capacity to mobilize creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance – to make a positive difference in the world.” 

Appreciative Leadership is based on four key concepts: 

  • Appreciative Leadership practices are relational. A leader being called inspiring, visionary, compassionate, humble, or flexible are part of a coactive process where these qualities are affirmed by engagement with others.  
  • Appreciative Leadership practices are positive and life-affirming. Leaders possess a positive worldview and honor the unique gifts and creative potential of others through affirmation, inquiry, and dialogue.
  • Appreciative Leadership turns potential into positive power (results). Leaders sense potential and unleash others’ creative energy and enthusiasm which leads to sustainable results.
  • Appreciative Leadership sets ripples of change in motion. A leader’s words, actions, and relationships influences others. Your influence ripples outward, affecting teachers, students, parents, and the community.

One way to apply these concepts is to interact with others by reframing the circumstances in the positive. This idea comes from the article Positive Problem-Solving: How Appreciative Inquiry Works.  Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which recognizes the difficulties individuals, districts, schools, or communities face, does not focus there. Instead, the AI process reframes the circumstances to focus on existing strengths and how those strengths can be developed and enhanced. The circumstances do not change, you will still be planning for how teaching and learning will look in the fall; the way you approach the work changes.  Instead of solving problems (deficit focus), you focus on creating the future you want (positive focus).

Four strategies to move from a deficit frame to a positive frame: 

  1. Speak in terms of the positive (what assets and strengths do you have to build on?) instead of talking about what you lack (expressing disapproval, sarcasm, cynicism).
  2. Share and incorporate all relevant negative information in reframing the future you want to create.
  3. Seek others’ perspectives, instead of assuming the certainty of having the answer. Assume others have valuable information to share.
  4. Ask questions in order to explore all possible options.

Refer to Leaders’ Corner and Teachers’ Corner for role-specific examples.

Leader’s Corner

“The ageless essence of leadership, is to create an alignment of strengths, in ways which make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

~ Peter Drucker

As you plan for the future, consider the ideas and support of others throughout the district and community. One leader alone cannot carry the burden of planning for the unknown. Develop a shared leadership approach and consider using these five core strategies of Appreciative Leadership to engage your staff:  Inquiry, Illumination, Inclusion, Inspiration, and Integrity.

  • Inquiry:  Ask positively powerful questions.  Great questions often . . . 
    • Focus on opportunities vs. problems
    • Engage leaders, staff, students, and parents personally:  heart, mind, and spirit
    • Invite stories
    • Stimulate imagination
    • Suggest action
  • Illumination: Bring out the best of people and situations
    • Encourage inquiry and dialogue about strengths, successes, and the root causes of success
    • Align individual and collective strengths to maximize potential
  • Inclusion: Engage with people to co-create the future
    • Unleash the positive power of your diverse perspectives
    • Ensure decisions and plans for the future satisfy and serve multiple groups
    • Connect and include everyone in dialogue and decision-making
  • Inspiration: Awaken the creative spirit
    • Courageous invitation to move beyond the norm
    • Give people a reason and a way to move forward
    • Prompt innovation and action not previously thought possible
  • Integrity: Make choices for the good of the whole
    • Support people to consider and balance decision-making for the good of the whole organization
    • Invite people to give their best for the greater good and to trust others to do the same 

We have provided links below to three positive framing scenarios that might help district and building leaders engage staff, students, and the community in positive problem solving.  As you read through these examples, reflect on the communication that you have received and sent; what might be tweaked to positively frame the message while keeping the 5 I’s in mind?

Positive Framing Budget Example
Positive Framing Staff and Student Safety Example
Positive Framing Talent Management Example

Teacher’s Corner

“Studies of organisational excellence have shown that the art and science of asking powerful positive questions is much more important than looking for the gaps, weaknesses and limitations in a system.”

~ Anne Radford, Owner and editor of online journal AI Practitioner

How might we apply the concepts of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership in the classroom?  How might we use inquiry by asking powerful questions to support students in taking ownership of their learning?  Appreciative Inquiry identifies the strengths of a group and then pushes the group to develop ways to capitalize on those strengths.  We leverage the growth mindset by challenging students to find solutions to challenges rather than dwelling on them.  We do this by teaching Appreciative Inquiry through the use of the 4 D’s:  Discover, Dream, Design, and Deliver.  Consider using the four stages of Appreciative Inquiry to empower your students to help you find what’s working, create an ideal vision for the class, and design a way to get there. 

  • Discover what is working
    • Focus on the positive
    • Create a list of strengths
    • Reflect on past accomplishments
  • Dream about what is possible
    • Leverage the collective creativity of the group
    • Ask powerful questions such as, “What does the ideal _____ look like for each student, teacher, and/or administrator?”
  • Design concrete activities to move you towards the vision 
    • Delegate responsibilities to the students and relinquish control
    • Brainstorm ways that the group can work together to achieve the collective vision
  • Destiny – commit to the agreed-upon aspirations
    • Categorize actionable items to support the group in defining roles
    • Be willing to continuously learn, adjust, be flexible, and stay focused on strengths and vision for the future

We have provided links below of two positive framing scenarios that might help you as you engage colleagues and students in positive problem solving.  As you plan for the future of teaching and learning in your classroom for the fall, consider ideas and innovations from your students and other teachers in your school.  Collaboratively planning the future of learning provides you with added insight and approaches you may not consider on your own. Leverage the knowledge and skills of your colleagues and your students to build a better future together.

Positive Framing Teacher-to-Teacher Example
Positive Framing Example Teacher-to-Student Example

Where in the Blueprint might you find evidence of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership?  If you are thinking, “it’s throughout”, you are absolutely right!  As you review the following Blueprint components, reflect on the strengths of your district and school and how you might contextualize this thinking.  Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership is embedded in the:

  • Outer Ring, Instructional Leadership Routines, Teacher Collaborative Routines, and Leadership Network – Adult relationships are a large part of these areas of the Blueprint.  The foundation of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership is built on relationships.  Staff need to know 1) that they belong, 2) that their contribution is valued, 3) where their organization is headed, 4) that excellence is expected of them, and 5) that they are contributing to the greater good.  The outer ring, the Leadership Network, and teacher and leadership routines exemplify this thinking.
  • Problem-Solving and Performance Management Driver Systems – The problem-solving driver is an inquiry-based model for problem-solving, in other words, how do we remain curious about the data (by asking questions) instead of defending a point of view?  With AI, strengths are focused upon and leveraged.  When we do root-cause analysis, how might we focus our energy on determining positive root cause(s) and growing from what is working? In this way, districts develop the ability to replicate their strengths and apply them in other areas. 
  • Communications Driver System – A communication strategy guides the district’s approach to systems creation/improvement. It sets the tone and direction so that all communication activities, products, and materials work in harmony to achieve the desired change.  A communication strategy also enables stakeholders and partners to provide input and agree upon the best way forward so that actions are unified. With Appreciative Leadership, the Communications Driver System leverages Illumination, Inclusion, Inspiration, Inquiry, and Integrity.
  • Visions – One key practice of AI is to use positive images of the future to motivate positive action . . . in other words, the more that people share the same positive image (vision) of the future they want, the more probable that future becomes.  Your visions of high-quality instruction, student support, and talent guide the district with each decision being made.  The core practices of Appreciative Leadership support your visions as well. Inspiration provides people with a sense of direction (vision) and hope.  Through practices of Illumination, you can help people learn about their strengths and the strengths of others and allow for risk-taking. 

The content within the Blueprint Framework can be approached from a number of angles. Taking the Appreciative lens encourages you to capitalize on your district’s strengths and collectively and creatively address your opportunities for growth in your systems, drivers, and routines. How might you start from your strengths and activate the knowledge and experience of your staff, students, and community?

Join us for the Virtual Blueprint Institute on August 4-5, 2020, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for a unique blend of virtual learning. 

  • A whole group virtual webinar 
  • Virtual breakout sessions in three distinct tracks: Leadership, Instructional Infrastructure, and Student Support 
  • Networking sessions both days  

Click to watch a one-minute promotional video: Blueprint Institute VI

Registration is open now at 

“Hope is having a dream and believing it’s possible to get there.”

~ Verena Kast, Author, Joy, Inspiration and Hope

How will you reframe how you communicate with each stakeholder to allow for and inspire a deeper sense of hope?  In times of uncertainty and change, hope invigorates and inspires. Matthew Kelly states, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. Hope is one of those things that you can’t buy, but that will be freely given to you if you ask. Hope is the one thing people cannot live without. Hope is a thing of beauty.”  By simply pausing and reflecting on how you communicate could mean the difference for your staff, students, and their families.  Appreciative Leadership and Inquiry gives you tools to shift your mindset as well as the mindset of others.

Contact Us: Our goal is to meet your needs. If there’s specific information that you believe you and others would benefit from learning about, please communicate those wishes to your SWFT facilitator or email Lynn Batchelder, Coordinator of Professional Learning,

Henderson, Margaret, et al. “Positive Problem Solving: How Appreciative Inquiry Works.” In Focus – Strategies and Solutions for Local Government Managers, vol. 43, no. 3, 2011,

Whitney, Ph.D., Diana, et al. Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization. McGraw-Hill, 2010.

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