Dr. Matthew Ohlson, Director, Taylor Leadership Institute

Dr. Matthew Ohlson is a Professor and Director of the Taylor Leadership Institute at the University of North Florida. He is the author of 3 books and over 20 research articles on leadership and organizational performance. Dr. Ohlson also serves as the Director of Leadership Services for an NCAA Division 1 athletic program and a leadership “Coach” to business leaders, educators and athletes (including 6 Olympians). He is the winner of the Franklin Covey Student Success award, the American Graduate Champion Award (PBS), the top 40 Most Influential Leaders (John Maxwell), the Work of Heart Leadership Award (United Way), the Service to Youth Award (Jefferson Awards for Public Service), Visionary Award (EdTech Digest) and the Foundation Heroes Award (United Health Care).


A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the most sought-after attribute for potential employees is the ability to lead others. With increased employee mobility, the athlete transfer portal, drops in college student enrollments and decreased retention rates in various fields, an emerging trend in organizational improvement is focusing on empowering leaders to celebrate successes and build a culture of happiness to bring about improved outcomes.

Leading with Joy

What if we have it wrong? We spend so much time chasing happiness. We have been taught that happiness comes as we achieve success, and the truth is, it does. With every new success comes happiness; the two are synonymous. But what about flipping the sequence and starting with happiness? First comes happiness, then comes success. This is the mantra of leading with joy.

Leading with joy requires a shift in thinking. Rather than focusing on the deficits, challenges, and obstacles ahead, a culture of happiness spotlights the gains, strengths, and opportunities.

In recent studies, researchers found that happiness improved business sales by 37 percent, increased productivity by 31 percent, and increased accuracy on tasks by 19 percent. Similar outcomes have been experienced by partner organizations where a focus on positivity and celebrating successes has led to increased employee retention, increased employee attendance, increased brand loyalty, and greater customer satisfaction. My own experience working with business leaders, Olympic athletes and collegiate athletic teams has shown that a shift towards positive leadership, embracing individual and collective strengths and celebrating successes leads to increased performance. Leading with joy focuses on celebrating the team: employees, players, and colleagues, while also consistently examining the impact that the leadership team is having on leading and lagging indicators.

Best Practices for Leaders

Several methods have proven successful and are easy to implement.

Parking Lot Rule

What you focus on you will feel. The more you are reminded of your strengths and impact, the more likely you are to achieve continued success and eliminate the imposter syndrome

Action: Before you leave the office, the classroom or locker room each day, think of at least one individual success and a collective success, celebrating how you helped bring out the best in others or led your organization toward established goals.

The Influencers

Great leaders celebrate the greatness in others. Celebrating your teammates for their efforts and outcomes is a way to honor your efforts and make those you lead feel valued and significant

Action: Each week, send a positive email or text to at least one employee, colleague, or teammate to thank them for their efforts and for making an impact.

Weekly Success Reminder

Tell Your Story or Someone Else Will: An effective way to implement a success-oriented and positive mindset within your team or organization is to empower individuals to celebrate their own impact. This approach fosters a culture of recognition and positivity and serves as an effective method for assessing employee performance. By encouraging team members to document and reflect on their efforts and achievements, you challenge them to take ownership of their contributions and personal growth.

Action: Send a weekly calendar invite to all team members and ask them to respond to the question, “What was the best part of your week or biggest success?” This mindset reminds the team that each person plays a role in the overall organizational success.

Team Awesome

It’s not bragging if it’s true. By establishing systems and formats for both collective and individual celebrations, you foster a culture of excellence. Supported by data and evidence, these systems also serve to reaffirm the significant impact you are making on the organization, team, or college campus.

Action: Using a shared bulletin board or online portal, create a forum for celebrating each other. Each member can nominate a colleague for leading, helping, serving, or inspiring others in the organization.

Focus on Specific Groups

College Campuses

For college students, fostering a culture of happiness and confidence can be pivotal during their formative years. Implementing strategies to recognize achievements and strengths can enhance their academic and social experiences.

  • Student Recognition Programs: Typically, students and families only hear from campus leaders when things go wrong. Implement ways to celebrate student success including student awards, experiences and opportunities that recognize their efforts. Remember that they will remember these moments far longer than any grade or assessment.
  • Campus Activities: Promote events and activities that foster positivity, teamwork, and celebrate both individuals and the university. This helps instill a sense of pride in students for themselves and the school they attend.

Athletic Teams

Athletes often face immense pressure and lofty expectations. By focusing on positivity and celebrating small victories, they can build resilience and confidence, leading to better performance and overall well-being.

  • Positive Coaching: Encourage coaches and leaders to emphasize strengths and celebrate both individual and team successes. Focus discussions on questions like: What did we do well today? Who on the team deserves recognition? What challenges did we overcome together?
  • Team Building Activities: Organize events that foster camaraderie and positive reinforcement among team members.
  • Wellness: Provide resources and support for athletes to take care of themselves as one cannot pour from an empty cup.

The Workplace

Business leaders play a crucial role in shaping organizational culture. By leading with joy and focusing on employee strengths, they can drive innovation and success.

  • Leadership Training: Offer training programs that emphasize positive leadership and the importance of celebrating successes.
  • Employee Recognition Programs: Implement programs to regularly acknowledge and reward employee contributions based on performance, not just birthdays or work anniversaries/longevity.
  • Corporate Culture Initiatives: Develop initiatives that promote a positive workplace culture.


Psychological Benefits of Leading with Joy

  • Mental Health and Well-Being: Fostering a positive environment reduces stress and anxiety, contributing to better mental health.
  • Building Resilience: Celebrating successes helps individuals and teams build resilience by reinforcing their ability to overcome challenges.

Practical Implementation Strategies

  • Daily Reflections: Encouraging individuals to reflect on daily successes helps in internalizing achievements and maintaining a positive outlook.
  • Positive Feedback Loops: Regular positive reinforcement through emails, texts, or in-person acknowledgments strengthens team bonds and individual motivation.

Long-Term Impact on Organizational Success

  • Sustained Performance: Positive leadership practices enhance current performance and build a foundation for long-term success.
  • Future Readiness: By fostering a culture of joy and recognition, leaders prepare their teams to face future challenges with confidence and enthusiasm.

Metrics for Success

  • Regular Assessments: Use surveys and feedback tools to measure the impact of positive leadership initiatives on employee satisfaction and organizational performance.
  • Celebration Milestones: Setting specific goals for recognizing achievements and tracking progress ensures sustained focus on positivity.


*This article has been adapted from the original Start with Happy written by Dr. Matthew Ohlson (Professor, Performance Coach, Author) and one of his former students, Dr. Ali Badibanga (globally recognized talent development leader for organizations such as Facebook/META). The original article has been downloaded over 100,000 times and has been used at numerous colleges and universities as an exemplar for workplace performance and culture. This updated version was written by Dr. Ohlson along with another one of his former students, Sydnie Steele. Sydnie is now the Assistant Director of Academic Services at the UNF Taylor Leadership Insititute and is pursuing her doctorate in leadership from the University of Kentucky.

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