How to be Positive when things are Negative
“Leaders need to be excited about what is possible rather than managing what is,” Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup.
The context of Leadership:
During our second conversation, Doug explained that, “Leaders are called in when problems are big.” People look to you when things aren’t working.
Doug shared his recollection of a speech Rudy Giuliani made after 9/11. Giuliani said, “There are two choices, optimism or pessimism – we choose to make New York City the safest city in the world.”
Being positive about the negative:
“Leaders need a balance between idealism and pragmatism.” Doug continued, “Acknowledge the reality of what is while you aspire to the ideal. Leaders are hungry to make things better.”
I asked Doug how he acknowledged the reality of problems without coming across negatively.
“Don’t publicly talk problems until you can offer solutions.”
How much is enough:
Doug shared that Jim Collins helped him with confronting the brutal facts. He went on to say, “You have to confront the brutal feelings as well.”
When things are dark, “You don’t have to go all the way to bright – just make it better today.” In addition, Doug shared, “Help people believe you can make it better tomorrow, too.”
Positive in the blood and guts:
Doug recalled an illustration he’d read in, “The Art of Thinking,” about nurses. “They roll up their sleeves to deal with the blood and guts while trying to get to a better place – healing.”
You face challenges every day. People come to you when things are dark and problems complex. Confront the brutal facts. If you don’t people will think you’re out of touch; they won’t have confidence.
Focus on the best solution you have; you don’t have to go all the way – make things brighter today.
What have you learned about leadership and optimism?
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Other installments of my conversation with Campbell’s Soups last CEO, Doug Conant:
Doug Conant Explains the Power of “And” — When I hung up the phone, I thought how often I’ve been an “either/or” rather than a “both/and” leader.
Doug Conant on Office Politics — “Create environments where people believe they will be honored.”
This was really awesome–speech is spelled wrong in the second paragraph and I am only mentioning it because it would be a shame for it to take away from the article.
Thanks for the spell checker. I have several friends who send me notes when I have misspelled words or grammar errors. Plus my wife sends me a note also. I appreciate it.
I blast these posts out every morning, I can use all the help I can get.
I have learned that people respect vision casters who have their feet grounded in reality. They cheer for optimism, but they want the truth. They have little respect or tolerance for foolish optimism, being lied to or being made the fool of.
They want someone who will work alongside them in the good times and the bad.
Martina, good point. I especially agree with the word “alongside.” Leaders who don’t share the pain can lose respect fast.
You made me think about the cheer-leader-leader; the one where nothing is ever wrong and problems are sprinkled with fairy dust and POOF! they disappear.
Thanks for adding to the conversation.
Great call Greg – I’m with you “alongside” is a great expression.
Remember Pareto’s Principle, and spend 20% of your time concentrating on the challenge, and 80% of your time envisioning a solution. Emergencies are always inconvenient by their nature, and all the planning in the world cannot account for every single item.
As an employment counselor, someone who helps others deal with life changes on a daily basis, I have to remind them that they are the one with the solution that counts for them. It is crowd-sourcing the immediate crowd, being honest and supportive, but also being open and flexible. As @Martina said above, people generally want loyalty to be earned before leadership can truly begin, and you need to have an audience that is listening before you can inspire them.
To leadership and optimism, I say two ears and one mouth – listen twice as much as you speak, and you are bound to learn something and then offer value.
Don’t you love Pareto’s Principle. It seems to pop up all over the place. Even if people reject 80/20, it should be apparent that optimism takes us further than pessimism.
Hey Dan, great topic. It makes me think about a peer whose answer to everything is to set a goal. No thought on achievability or even advisability, just blind faith that any goal will be accomplished.
I’ve found that there’s wild-eyed optimism, which people dismiss as impractical, and there’s practical optimism that recognizes that things won’t always be rosy along the way but is excited about the good that will result. Leaders who refuse to ever hear or say a negative word are either out of touch or on good meds. Leaders who acknowledge what it will take but want to go there anyway are trusted.
The best kind of optimism: a strong belief in your team. “We can do this” is an extremely effective motivator, especially accompanied by an equally strong why and a few rational thoughts on how.
In relation to your quote about looking at the possible instead of what is, the Army delineated officer and sergeant roles like this: NCOs manage today’s work and prep for tomorrow’s. Officers monitor what’s going on now but spend the bulk of their time planning and defining the future state of the unit.
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Yet another appreciable post on positivity. I liked a specific comment of Doug: ‘Don’t publicly talk problems until you can offer solutions.’ A superb advice to all leaders. One good quality which can build the confidence and spirit of others. But, do not forget to take opinion of your trusted people before deciding on any solution.
One important lesson I have learned about leadership and optimism is that allowing yourself to get weighed down by the negative details of a challenging situation can obscure the possibility of optimism and hope. One ED I worked under was someone I would come to with a litany of small (and bad) developments; she reminded me over and over to “chunk things” – to pick the top three and chip away at them. It wasn’t a “pollyanna” or “mary sunshine” approach on her part – more pragmatic – but she knew that drowning in the morass of details would eventually suck us all under. It was a lesson that has stood me well.
“Don’t publicly talk problems until you can offer solutions.” isn’t always possible, but it’s a very effective approach in most cases, very nice read.
Good morning Dan, you ask what have we learned about Leadership and optimism. This brings to mind the Shackleton story. Talk about leadership, perseverance and looking at the glass half full. I like a phrase I ran into recently stating “urgently optimistic.” People look to the leader to frame and put in perspective negative occurrences. As mentioned reality is important but should never supersede the need to be urgently optimistic. Pessimists will see see obstacles with failure and optimists will see opportunity. Our challenge is to squeeze the positive energy remnant that occurs in every negative situation and transform it albeit slowly and incompletely at times into a growth and learning moment. Like John Maxwell says the leader should always be seen getting up and never down. Our environment is in flux and very dynamic and on a daily basis there will be “gloom” moments which are unavoidable. Leadership needs to keep the focus in play and choose her words accordingly since they are the “rudders” and determine direction. Optimism in a moment of crisis is something that will bring you into the future and while Fear and Faith are both future events one is positive and one is negative. Leaders need to hug the Faith approach. That is one venue which will never have any negatives associated with it so we know there is always “back-up.”
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Great stuff posted already, thanks folks for the various lenses!
One foot in each camp of the ‘pragmatic optimist’ may work. Be real and look ahead. No candy coating, yet still see the positive future.
Regarding publicly talking about problems sans solutions makes sense. There can be seeds to plant individually or in small groups to see what permutations the group identifies as options/potential solutions. Then when presenting options publicly, point the credit their way as well. That strengthens the team. It is not about you. 😉
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