What positive leadership really looks like

If you let it, negativity can wreak havoc on any business. Leaders, it’s up to you to set the course for positivity and run your company on optimism. Optimism wins out every time!

The average modern-day workplace is far from positive. Everybody’s already tense and on edge due to work demands, stress, office politics and the economy. Add in a pessimistic, angry leader, and you’ve got a bigger problem. In fact, a recent Gallup poll estimates that negativity costs the economy $250 billion to $300 billion a year and affects the morale, performance and productivity of teams.

Spreading negative energy solves nothing. In fact, it causes people to shut down. Morale suffers; employees disengage; productivity takes a hit; and profits fall.

It’s easy to get upset and derailed by anger when things go wrong, but then the issue gets lost because you mismanaged the situation. Leading a team is really a lot like parenting. If you yell at your kids, they miss the message. Instead, you have to use love and accountability to help them perform their best at all times.

I strongly believe in positive leadership, which means sharing optimism, hope and inspiration with your team. Yes, even when — especially when — things go wrong.

It also means not ignoring negativity within your organization. (This is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make.) You must address the negativity, confront it, transform it or remove it before it has a chance to breed and grow. This is the role of a positive leader.

A lot of people roll their eyes when they hear about positive leadership. They think positive leaders are nice, undisciplined, happy-go-lucky people who smile all the time and believe that results are not important. On the contrary, positive leadership consistently helps organizations thrive and inspires teams to get results.

But here’s the question: What does positive leadership look like in action? Here are five common business scenarios that many leaders face.

▶ Scenario 1: Your team member doesn’t deliver their part of the project (again).

Negative leaders attack the person and focus on the past.

Positive leaders attack the problem and focus on the future.

Positive leaders should identify why the underperforming employee has not delivered and coach them to solve the problem and achieve success. They have to be demanding without being demeaning. They both challenge and encourage their teams and organizations to continue to improve and get better.

The difference between a positive leader and other leaders is that many focus on accountability first, and love comes later or not at all. Many talk about tough love, and I believe in it, but I have found that love must come first. If your team knows you love them, they will allow you to challenge and push them. Instead of tough love, it needs to be love tough.

▶ Scenario 2: A salesman consistently misses goals and makes excuses.

Negative leaders complain and blame.

Positive leaders identify opportunities.

It’s important to help your team remember that there’s always an opportunity for improvement. Positive communicators encourage and inspire others to do more and become more than they ever thought possible. Positive leaders are great encouragers, and it’s something the world needs more of. With so many people telling us we can’t succeed, we need to hear people telling us we can.

Anyone pursuing anything worthwhile will fail and fail often. I certainly have failed many times, but when I look back, I realize I wasn’t failing; I was growing. I learned that you can dwell on the past or look forward to making the next opportunity great. You can see life as a game of failure or opportunity. It’s all in how you see it.

▶ Scenario 3: Your customer service employee has a history of being rude to customers.

Negative leaders fire offending employees right away.

Positive leaders first seek to transform them.

Martin, a leader with the company Seventh Generation, told me that he put a sign on his door that read: “Energy vampires welcome. Expect to be transformed.”

Employees who act out on the job are energy vampires. The first step in dealing with an energy vampire on your team is not to remove but to transform. No one really wants to be an energy vampire. These people are likely negative for a reason. The first steps should always be to listen with empathy and love, and try to understand and transform.

I have found the best way to deal with energy vampires in your organization is at the culture level, where you set the expectation that people who drain the energy of others will not be tolerated. You talk about the negative impact of negativity. You explain that one person can’t make a team but one person can break a team. You talk about what a great culture looks like and how you want everyone to be a positive contributor to it.

▶ Scenario 4: An employee shows values inconsistent with company culture (shows a lack of transparency, overpromises on deliveries, stirs up drama with colleagues, etc.).

Negative leaders overlook inconsistencies and move on to other problems.

Positive leaders show love and accountability companywide.

Former CEO Alan Mulally turned around Ford with both love and accountability. He believed you have to love your people, but you have to make sure you hold your team accountable to the plan, the process, the principles and the values of the culture.

Mulally had a zero-tolerance policy for violating the process. This is how positive leaders should approach dealing with inconsistencies in organizations. If someone violates the process and you don’t address it, then everyone knows you aren’t committed to it. But when you love people and hold them accountable, it’s amazing how fast things can move in the right direction. And if you’re failing in some way, you won’t be ostracized, but rather you will find the support you need to succeed.

▶ Scenario 5: Your company is falling on hard times, and everyone is worried about their job.

Negative leaders become even more negative and turn volatile and hopeless.

Positive leaders lead with faith instead of fear.

During the Great Recession, as the rest of the country was going through the downturn, the people who lead and work for the companies in Silicon Valley refused to participate in the recession. They were too busy trying to change the world. They were surrounded by a bubble of optimism.

Ultimately, being a positive leader is all about leading with faith in a world filled with cynicism, negativity and fear. The ultimate battle we face every day is the battle between faith and fear. As a leader, you must realize that your people are facing this battle daily. They are filled with fear, doubt and uncertainty, and it’s your job to inspire them with faith. Leading with optimism, positivity and belief comes down to leading with faith instead of fear.

Negativity routinely drains energy and sabotages talented teams. But leaders are optimally positioned to combat negativity and pessimism at every level of their company. As quickly as systemic pessimism poisons a group of people, relentless optimism is guaranteed to change the destructive negative dynamics and transform your culture. It’s truly up to you. Focus on the positive in all situations and see the remarkable difference it makes.

Jon Gordon’s newest book is “The Power of Positive Leadership: How and Why Positive Leaders Transform Teams and Organizations and Change the World.” His best-selling books and talks have inspired readers and audiences around the world. His principles have been put to the test by numerous NFL, NBA and MLB coaches and teams, Fortune 500 companies, school districts, hospitals and nonprofits.

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