It is impossible to understate the importance of leadership in any human endeavor. Proverbs says: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Everyone can recall times they have experienced a lack of leadership and the results are seldom appealing. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines leading as “to guide on a way especially by going in advance” or “to direct on a course or in a direction.” But, defining leadership is much more difficult and volumes have been written about it. Almost any definition of leadership includes some element of inspiration. Anyone can give orders, provide direction, develop a plan, espouse a strategy, etc. But, real leadership always inspires people and motivates them into action to do things they would not have otherwise accomplished on their own.
When I was in elementary school, every class through the fourth grade had one teacher for all subjects. We spent all day, every school day with the same teacher. If you didn’t like your teacher, or if there was a personality clash, it made for a very long school year! In the third grade, there were two classes. One was taught by the wife of a local pastor and she had a reputation for being a lot of fun. But, my teacher was a stern older lady who was, to put it very mildly, not much fun. Back in those days, if you acted up in class, it was not unusual for the teacher to give you swats with the paddle right there in the classroom. My third grade teacher would sometimes give us swats even for messing up on our homework. Once I was out sick and had to make up my homework. I did one of the assignments incorrectly and got called up to the teacher’s desk for swats. Needless to say, it was a very long school year. I dreaded school and it was not much fun. Now, I certainly learned the material as it would have been very painful not to. But, I didn’t like one minute of it. I remember talking to the kids in the other teacher’s class and feeling envious at how much fun they were having. To this day, I wish I had been in the other class and wonder if my subsequent academic career would have in some way been better if I had. Now, I’m no worse for the wear but I think this demonstrates the difference inspirational leadership can make. I don’t think the kids in the fun teacher’s class learned less but, I can guarantee you, as soon as the school year was over, they were looking forward to the fourth grade much more than I. Inspiration is always more powerful than negative reinforcement.
Real leaders exude perpetual optimism. They inspire others to follow their cause. Their leadership effectiveness is multiplied by a positive outlook that brings out the best in others. After the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt immediately put Admiral Chester Nimitz in charge of the Pacific fleet. There is an old story that, after touring the enormous destruction in Pearl Harbor aboard a small boat, the helmsman asked: “Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?” Admiral Nimitz shocked everyone by identifying three big mistakes the Japanese had made that were cause for optimism in the wake of the attack: 1) The Japanese had attacked on a Sunday morning while nine of ten crewmen were on shore leave. 2) The Japanese got so carried away bombing the battleships they failed to destroy the docks. And, 3) the Japanese never touched the above ground fuel farm less than five miles away. Now, I can imagine that, in the middle of all that destruction, with flames still burning and smoke billowing, folks likely thought Admiral Nimitz was overly optimistic in his assessment to say the least. But, the rest is history. The U.S. Navy, under the superb leadership of Admiral Nimitz, was eventually victorious over the Japanese and did so with far fewer ships and assets than the Japanese had at the beginning of the war. Admiral Nimitz’s optimism certainly paid off and I am quite certain that the outcome of the war would have been much different were it not for his positive outlook.
Here are five ways to multiply your leadership effectiveness through optimism:
Accentuate the positive. There is an old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Similarly, one person’s negative attitude is contagious and can derail the entire team. The good news is an optimistic attitude is also contagious. Whether you are in either a formal or informal leadership position, others will model your behavior in much the same way kids learn how to act from their parents. Now, I’m not about to tell you I am always positive. I don’t think it is possible to be upbeat all the time. But, the more optimistic you are, the more people around you will be too. Sometimes it is difficult to find anything to be optimistic about. But, great leaders always find a way to inspire people, build them up, and enlist them toward their cause. If Admiral Nimitz had given a negative assessment of the situation, I’m sure everyone would have understood his despair. In truth, he may even have felt a degree of despair in that very tough situation. Instead, he seized the opportunity to encourage all those around him, set the tone for his command, and to instill hope in his subordinates.
Increase positive reinforcement. In the movie, Monsters, Inc., the character of Sulley discovered that a child’s laughter is ten times more powerful than their frightened scream. It’s a silly analogy but I always use this when comparing positive versus negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than negative. Being recognized or complimented encourages every fiber of our being. Negative reinforcement simply makes us avoid whatever we perceive is the cause for a specific failure. If it is severe enough, negative reinforcement can discourage us to the point we become disengaged. Positive reinforcement tends to have multiplying effects since it inspires us toward further achievements. Now, the idea of completely eliminating negative reinforcement is unrealistic. But, we shouldn’t be a one trick pony either. The only arrow in your quiver should not be to come down on others when they fail. In fact, you should use positive reinforcement orders of magnitude more frequently than negative. Capitalize on every opportunity you can find to provide positive encouragement. Doing so takes some effort and self-discipline but, the results are much more powerful and lasting. In my experience, people will find ways to achieve results I would have never dreamed of if I simply express my sincere appreciation for their accomplishments.
Trust your team. Dan Pink gave a terrific TED Talk on the subject of what motivates people. He identified three motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is the desire to be self-directed. We naturally want to be given a goal and allowed to figure out our own way of reaching it. Ronald Regan said: “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere.” When you are in a leadership position, you need to give clear direction, make sure you have the right people on the team, and get out of their way. That doesn’t mean to be disengaged but, it does mean you can sap the creativity, drive, and enthusiasm out of any team by micromanaging. Your team needs to know you are on their side, support them, have their back, and are their advocate. This makes a powerful statement that you believe in them. Optimists believe in people. Pessimists don’t believe they can and feel the need to micromanage.
Clearly communicate the vision. Lewis Carroll said: “If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.” Inspirational leaders set clear, visionary goals. For many years, it was considered impossible for a human being to run a mile in less than four minutes and the record stood at 4:01. But, since Roger Bannister broke this “barrier” more than 60 years ago, many others have too and it is not considered unusual among Olympic class runners. Breaking this “barrier” required setting a stretch goal. One of the best examples of this was when President Kennedy set the national goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” That goal inspired and motivated our entire nation. It was risky but achievable. Of course, there were major setbacks along the way but, the nation was committed. While setting an unattainable goal is demotivating and breeds hopelessness, an achievable stretch goal can inspire people to new heights. Setting a goal that is too easily achievable is an exercise in mediocrity and reaching it accomplishes little. However, setting a stretch goal requires a high degree of optimism because it requires us to believe in ourselves and our teams.
Be nice. As Dr. M. Scott Peck said in his book, The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Even the most optimistic among us become frustrated, irritable, angry, or have other negative emotions from time to time. I certainly have my moments as anyone who knows me will attest. We are endowed with a wide range of emotions and, if we put our heart into what we do, we will experience them all, both positive and negative. However, getting stuck on a negative emotion can be a big problem. Being around or working with someone who is consistently difficult to deal with is certainly not motivational. One person can effectively demotivate an entire team. As adults, we own our emotions and are obligated to be aware of the impact we have on others. Normally getting stuck on some negative emotion is a coping mechanism for some other problem. If we find ourselves stuck in such a state, we must take responsibility and do something about it to prevent ourselves from negatively impacting others. Doing so is being considerate and demonstrates that we value those around us.
As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right.” Perpetual optimism is a steadfast belief that we can, which inspires ourselves and others toward great achievements and world class performance. World class performance is the intersection of talent and hard work. More on that topic in rule #10.
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