Learning how to deal with adversity and leading people through it is one of the most important skills leaders must develop. Some people are so successful that when they eventually fail at something, that failure becomes an existential crisis for them. Organizations are not different: some are resilient and some aren’t. For leaders to be effective, they need to be able to put things in perspective leading people with “positivity.”
When I was in high school, I co-coached my brother’s Little League team when the adult coach had to quit for personal reasons. It was my first coaching job and I certainly learned a great deal about leadership from the experience. One particularly bad day, our game plan completely came apart. We’d gone through all our pitchers, and the other team was killing us. At one point things were going so badly, I walked into the dugout and dejectedly sat down. Seeing this, my Dad quietly walked out of the bleachers and whispered in my ear, “When you get down, the team will get down. Get up and get back in the game.” It was a great lesson in leading with positivity.
I’d like to say we won, but we didn’t. However, we were able to tell the boys they’d done good and congratulate them for never giving up even when they were getting creamed. That post game pep talk carried a lot more weight when we coaches maintained our positive attitude.
There’s many personal skills involved in maintaining a positive attitude, like the ones John Treas writes about over a Inc.com 5 Steps Toward Maintaining a Positive Attitude.
1. Manage rejection. It is easy to get discouraged when unwelcomed events occur. The trick is to put them in perspective: Most will pass and become unimportant with time. It’s easy to feel like a single failure or rejection is the end of the world, but it never is. In fact, setbacks often give you an opportunity to turn a rebuff into a win. One time early in my sales career, I was literally thrown out of a prospect’s office because she felt I hadn’t respected her tight schedule. I went back to my office, wrote a letter of apology, and sent a gift designed to make her job easier. She became a good customer, and we became lasting friends.
Of course there’s other ways as well, and each person has their own. Leaders should find what works for them. That said, whatever individual skills people use to maintain their personal positivity, leaders must translate that into helping their teams maintain their positivity. As I’ve written many times, leadership style is both highly personal and highly situational, so leaders must adapt to their environment. I agree with Treas’ ideas at the link, and I’d like to add a couple leadership behaviors I believe are important for leaders to model:
– Be truthful. People quickly see through “happy talk” when leaders are delivering bad news. Some leaders believe they can “sugar coat” unpleasantness and those words will carry greater weight than the actual unpleasantness. I’m sorry, but to someone losing their job or being forced into a significant changes euphemisms like “right sizing” or “we’re making a change” ring hollow. People respect leaders who speak truthfully, and while bad news can be delivered with gentleness and compassion, we shouldn’t attempt to use euphemism to minimize the real pain people feel with change. When teams have confidence their leaders are being truthful, the resulting trust helps people maintain a positive attitude.
– Think Ahead. It’s much easier to lead people toward a positive attitude when there’s a plan. Even when the road ahead is tough, the team’s attitude is much more likely to stay positive if they can see where they’re going. Nothing destroys team morale…positive attitudes…than figuratively groping through the darkness towards an unseen or ambiguous goal.
– Stay positive. The most important thing a leader can do is model the behavior they want their teams to exhibit. Once the leader gets “down” the team will quickly follow; conversely if the leader is positive it’s much more likely the team will stay “up.”
Just like that Little League team, leaders need to understand the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and helping their teams maintain theirs. What skills do you use to keep yourself and your teammates positive?