Positively Deviant Leadership

I have studied leadership for many years, and can’t count how many books I have collected on the topic. I keep learning new things about how to be an effective, impactful, and influential leader.

You may be familiar with some of the models: transformational leadership, situational leadership, behavioral leadership, servant leadership, and so on.

The term “leadership” is becoming a lot like the word love! You know, we love chocolate and we love our mothers. But one we have affection for, and the other we crave. Big difference, right!?

Similarly, Leadership has lost its meaning because everyone can be a leader, either by having the title or by assuming the role. Studies show that 8 out of 10 Americans consider themselves leaders, or at least aspire to be. It makes me wonder who is following all of those leaders!

We all know from personal experience that some leaders are better than others. We also know that Leadership is something that can fall to neglect. Without a commitment to continue to improve and grow, leadership can lose its impact and influence.

While we may retain the title of leader, we may lose relevance and the power to change things if we put our leadership into autopilot. When we aren’t intentional about our leadership, we can actually cause a lot of damage.

It’s important to focus on who you are as a leader.

Leadership is a stewardship, a responsibility bestowed on us by followers, and we’d better take it seriously.

A challenge that we have in our organizations and our communities is that we tend to focus on problems. We look for where things are broken and we work to fix things. We also tend to be reactive, putting out fires and placing band aids on the symptoms. Oftentimes we have a deficit mindset, which leads to pessimistic and negative thinking.

The word proactive is well-used in our workplaces. It’s a good word, meaning that we act before things go awry, before its too late. The opposite, of course, is reactive, which means that we have already experienced a downturn, an opportunity has been missed, or we are off target. So we try to become proactive, hopefully avoiding the need to react to a crisis.

But there is something even more powerful than being proactive – it’s called positive deviance.

The word deviance comes from two Latin words: de, meaning out of; and via, meaning the way. So you have this idea that the deviant has ventured away from the normal path, most likely to pursue something sinister. But the positive deviant has gone off the beaten path to create a new way, a positive path.

The positive deviant is unorthodox, driven by a passion to make a difference, a compulsion to improve things, to grow and develop. What I want to leave you with tonight is three principles of positively deviant leadership.

The first principle is this: positively deviant leaders imagine better.

They see where things are and they envision something better. They look around them and they aren’t satisfied with what they see. They know it doesn’t have to stay like this, and they believe they have the ability to venture in a new direction.

Do you remember Popeye the Sailor Man? I know he’s in the wrong branch of the armed forces for some of you!

Do you remember when Olive Oyl was being bullied by Brutus and Popeye came along? He got steaming mad, and said “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands it no more!” He gobbled down his spinach and kicked Brutus’s butt!

Positive deviants are the same way! It may be an injustice, it may be a missed opportunity, it may be a better, more life-giving, more enriching way to do something. But they can no longer follow the status quo. They have to do something. And they are willing to step off the path to make it happen. This first principle has to do with attitude and seeing what could be if they stepped up and did something about it.

Positive deviants are all around us. They are the ones who choose to make a way where there seems to be no way. They take the same resources as everyone else has and they use them differently, and they find a way to thrive right next to the fire-fighters, right beside the maintainers of the status quo.

The second principle of positive deviance is this: positive deviants enlist co-conspirators. They Inspire through partnership.

Positive Deviants may initially venture out alone- they may start out as the rock in the middle of the stream around which the current is swirling. They do the research or covertly initiate their plan, but they know that change happens in community, in the social context. Positive leaders begin building a coalition.

They begin looking for others who are looking for a new path, those who see the need to change but may need a little prompting-they need to see some proof that change is possible. That’s where the positive deviants’ pre-work comes in handy. They have something to show that persuades others to come along.

Jerry and Monique Sternin worked for Save the Children. After the war in Vietnam, they were deployed to address the issue of malnutrition that was pervasive throughout Vietnam. It was great while the NGOs were there to distribute rice and nutrition packets, but when a particular program ended, meaning that there was no more food to distribute, malnutrition returned as before. The challenge before the Sternin’s was whether a sustainable nutrition program could be put into place.

It’s a fascinating story, which you can read for yourself in their book, but I want to focus on how they built a coalition to eradicate malnutrition in post-war Vietnam. With a mandate to fix a huge problem in a very short amount of time, the Sternin’s went on a hunt for positive deviants and discovered that among the poorest of the poor families, some children were nourished even though they had the same resource as their neighbors.

Once the Sternin’s and the local leaders that they had partnered with discovered what the positively deviant families were doing differently, which turned out to be adding a few bits of shrimp & crab, and a handful of greens to the regular serving of broth, they had to take what these few were doing to transform the community through collaboration. The point is this: the Sternin’s could not do it alone.

Consider how your network can move your community or your organization toward something that no single person is capable of. What path is awaiting you as a group of positively deviant leaders?

So the second characteristic has to do with relationships and building critical mass that leads to positive change.

The third and final characteristic I want to leave with you is this: positively deviant leaders are forward thinking.

The reality is that what is emerging for the next 20 years doesn’t look like the last 20 years. It’s already become a cliche that the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself! We know that the pace of society, the pace of business, is getting Faster and faster.

But our communitIes are becoming more global. Our competition is not just the business down the street, but the business in Bangalore, the organization in Bogota. So as positive deviants we must anticipate and be able to maneuver at a fast pace.

I heard recently that at least 20 percent of the jobs that will be needed in the next fifteen years don’t even exist today. Between a flattening world and rapid advances in technology, we’re in for an upheaval in how work gets done and who does it, and also the types of products and services that are required. This reality requires a different way of thinking if our communities are going to thrive into the future.

Positive deviants are watchers of the horizon. And they become prophets of future trends and seers of what is to be. Positive deviants energize innovative thinking. They build a strategy to forge a new path…a positive path for the future.

There is so much more to positive deviance. The interesting thing is that it has worked as a mindset and approach at the community development level and healthcare, but the marketplace has been slow to embrace it because we are committed to problem solving and a deficit mindset.

It’s not a panacea – you still have to address problems and evaluate gaps.

To me, the important thing about positively deviant leadership is that it can help us think about our communities and workplaces differently. Positively deviant leadership shifts the frame through which we view challenges and opportunities.

The questions we ask about what is happening around us shapes the kinds of answers we will hear. Positively deviant leaders look for signs of life and hope and fan the flames of possibility instead of looking for systems and programs on life support in an effort to keep them artificially alive.

Consider a positive deviance approach. Think about how you can imagine better and challenge the status quo, build a coalition that moves the group toward life-giving initiatives, and see into the future to create a community, an organization, and a life that builds on strengths and assets.

    

An Endless Supply of Blessings

The cornucopia is a symbol we break out at Thanksgiving to remind us of the overflowing abudnance we enjoy. It’s often a centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table filled with plastic fruit and vegetables that spill out of the wicker, horn-shaped basket across the tablecloth.

In classical mythology the horn of plenty is said to have come from the goat Amalthaea and provided an endless supply of food or drink. If you think about it, a horn-shaped basket isn’t the most practical device for carrying things, but as you try to fill it with the fruits of your labor, you are quickly reminded that you have much to be thankful for.

Thankfulness is a virtue that I am still trying to master. It’s not that I am ungrateful for the blessings in my life, but I have struggled to be satisfied with what I have before me. A quick list of things that I am grateful for include:

  • my wife, who is best friend, advisor, cheerleader, and spiritual mentor
  • my daughter, in whom I delight for her wit, determination, and overall sweetness
  • a multitude of other relatives and friends who inspire, entertain, and bless me
  • colleagues, business partners and students who keep me on my toes and propel me to continuous improvement
  • meaningful work that allows me to use my knowledge, skills, and abilities in new and innovative ways
  • education and the ability to learn new things – shelter and transportation that makes my life comfortable and mobile
  • health, sight, hearing, and the rest of the senses we take for granted

My struggle has been with staying mindful of these blessings and opportunities while also keeping an eye toward the horizon. I have missed the contentment and peace that comes with simmering in the stew of today because I wanted to jump into tomorrow’s pot. (Weird metaphor, I know!)

The gospel of Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to his disciples about worry. He said,

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

The opposite of worry is contentment; the idea that our desires are bound by what we already have. At the same time we have an innate desire to improve, advance, and acquire more.

Ambition is seen as a high virtue in our culture. But to what end? Greed, stress, an unending race toward bigger, better, faster?

I have written before on this dichotomy of ambition and contentment. And my solution now as it was before is a change in attitude and motivation from ambition to investment.

Investing in ideas, in relationships, in causes allows us an eye to the future without the negative consequences of blind ambition. Our mindset allows us to bless others and invest in their dreams and needs without the selfishness that often accompanies ambition.

When we rest in the satisfaction of what we have, using our gifts and resources to advance others either as individuals or communities, we can experience a new kind of thankfulness. It’s a deeper level of gratefulness that inspires us to give abundantly of our time, talents, and money.

So this Thanksgiving I am choosing to consider myself blessed. I will not compare my blessings to others, I will not worry about areas of lack, I will not be ambitious for my own gain. I will count my blessings one by one. I will give thanks for the people, provisions, and opportunities in my life.

The Joy of Positive Deviance

I first heard the term positive deviance when I read Kim Cameron’s thin volume, Positive Leadership. I immediately loved the term for its irony, its spin on what we normally think of as deviant behavior. The idea that we can become positively deviant by breaking the norm and surpassing expectations appeals to the dreamer in me.

Deviant comes from the Latin “de” – from, and “via” – road. So deviance refers to being off the beaten path. It is out of the norm, forging a new path where none exists. While some who live off the main road are robbers and malcontents, others are trail-blazers, dreamers…positive deviants.

Gretchen Spreitzer of the University of Michigan and Scott Sonenshein from Rice University clarify what is meant by positive: “By positive we mean honorable behaviors that improve the human condition.” Honorable is a carefully chosen term that reflects the above-and-beyond nature of the deviant behavior that others would label honorable.

Shawn Achor, a trail-blazer in the emerging study of positive psychology, is intrigued by the positive outliers- those who are out of the norm because they chose to push through when the odds were against them, went a little further than what was considered safe, and changed the lens through which they viewed the world.

Achor says to focus “on your own lens and how you can ripple that positivity out through your work, your personality and your habits to create a more positive work environment.” we can cultivate our positive deviance by becoming more aware of possibilities and opening our eyes to limiting mindsets.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship is the hub for research in how to apply positive psychology in our organizations. Researchers like Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn, and Jane Dutton are involved in the application of POS in the real world.

In the organizational context the positive deviant challenges the status quo. Fired by a vision of what could be…what ought to be…the positive deviant swims upstream. What I learned (the hard way) is that the successful positive deviant builds coalitions whenever possible. We swim alone if we have to, compelled by a vision of what could be. But creating ripples of influence within our informal and formal networks creates energy and critical mass.

As I considered how positive deviance applied to my own field of performance Improvment, I discovered that much performance intervention is based on ambition and individual power. To introduce positive deviance requires a shift in the philosophical starting point to performance analysis from ambition to investment.

As a performance investor I become a steward of a higher purpose within the organization. I see the positive core that each individual brings to the team as well as the collective positive core. My focus shifts from problems to possibilities and I invest my time and talent to raise the success quotient so that everyone wins.

I know positivity can come across as a “peace, love and harmony” approach that has no place in the rough and tumble world of organizational politics and a driving sense of urgency. It does require a shift in ones mindset to replace the ambition-based push with an investment-based influencing conviction.

Becoming a positive deviant in any organization requires a commitment to long-term influence as it takes time to build coalitions and work the social networks. It requires determination to continue making the investment of time, energy, and personal gain for the future success of individuals and the organization.

Tai Chi, Aikido and the Art of Managing Change

A Woman does tai chi.

A Woman does tai chi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the Temple of Heaven as our backdrop and surrounded by tourists and locals filing by on their way to the ancient attractions, our group learned a Tai Chi routine in the middle of a walkway with the buzz of the vast city around us. It was a surreal experience.

I was traveling with a group of university students who were in the China for a month to learn about Chinese business practices. The contrast between the chaotic setting of noisy, polluted and over-crowded Beijing and the tranquility of tai chi provides a fitting metaphor for organizational life.

If you’re not familiar with Tai Chi, the focus is on calmness and is a good way to manage stress. The Japanese version of Tai Chi is Aikido, which emphasizes redirecting of energy rather than attack. Aikido also adds in elements of Judo. The principles of Aikido include acknowledging what is coming toward you, accepting the current reality, and redirecting the energy away from bodily harm.  The benefits of both of these martial arts forms can be realized without the religious attachments associated with them.

I was certainly not a quick learner of Tai Chi, but appreciate the mental focus and athletic control it takes to master this beautiful art form. And I appreciate the metaphor that helps me better understand the possibility of peace in the midst of chaos, the ability to turn off the noise around me to focus on what I can do to manage my situation – to redirect my energy toward something useful.

The three principles of Aikido provide a positive framework from which to manage change, whether personal, organizational or cultural.

Acknowledge: We cannot live in denial. Change is all around us and often comes when it is least convenient, causing disruption to our current state. It is important to acknowledge that change is inevitable and to acknowledge that we seldom have much say in the changes that come at us.

Accept: We accept that the change is upon us. This is where choice comes into play. We can put up our defenses, bury our heads in the sand, or start swinging. We don’t accept the outcome of the change, but we accept that the change is taking place and that we have to decide our response. We accept responsibility for how we react. It is in these moments of choice that our character is shaped.

Redirect: In Aikido, the energy that is coming toward the attacked person is redirected, not resisted. As change comes toward us, we can either try to block it, or take it and redirect our thinking, our posture, and our practices toward something useful and positive. Redirecting doesn’t mean we stand by passively.  Instead, we look for ways to adjust, and by choosing this course we set a constructive tone for ourselves and those we influence.

Recommended Reading:

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article 'Leading Change,' by John P. Kotter)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised

In the Midwest? Join the Omaha Organization Development Network on Sept. 26th for a conference featuring Meg Wheatley. For more information, visit the Omaha OD Network site.

Developing Curiosity with Purpose

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, but It Could Mean Living With Purpose for You and Me

Most of us are curious about something from time to time. We turn the page, peek behind the curtain, or ask the question to give us a glimpse into something we are intrigued by. A lot of the time we have a random curiosity about things that don’t really matter. But putting curiosity to work for us can reveal purpose.

Blind curiosity can lead a cat, or a person, into dangerous territory. Beast or boy can follow a rat and quickly find himself the prey. But curiosity with a purpose, or intentional curiosity, can lead to great discoveries.

The word “curiosity” comes from the Latin “curiositatem,” meaning “desire of knowledge, inquisitiveness.”

Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

There is a big difference between random curiosity and purposeful curiosity. Undirected, our curiosity may be entertaining, interesting, even educational. But when we intentionally guide our curiosity toward a particular end, by focusing our questioning along a special path, we can benefit greatly.

I apply this principle of purposeful curiosity to my work in human performance improvement. I become a performance sleuth, looking for clues like Sherlock Holmes, trying to see the barriers and signs that no one else sees. Intentional curiosity about the system as a whole brings into focus issues that may normally be overlooked.

Intentional curiosity works best when we start at a thirty thousand foot view, then begin to zoom in to specific things through meaningful questions. A well-known technique that can be applied is the “5 Whys” which, as the name implies, consists of asking a series of why questions to uncover the source of a problem, or the heart of an opportunity.

Here’s a simple example of the 5 whys in action:

  1. Why did I lose my job? Because the company had too many employees.
  2. Why did the company have too many employees? Because they lost business during the recession.
  3. Why did they lose business during the recession? Because customers had less discretionary income.
  4. Why did customers have less discretionary income? Because they didn’t save enough when times were better.
  5. Why didn’t they save when times were better? Because they didn’t imagine that the economy could get this bad.

There are, of course, many possible answers to each question, so you can explore those possibilities and test various hypotheses to see how valid they are. Still curious about the Five Whys? Visit MindTools.com for more details.

Another great tool to use is appreciative inquiry, which leads you down a positive path toward a desired future built around a positive core.  In other words, you come up with a series of questions that guide your thinking around what has been successful, meaningful and life-giving in the past. By digging into the positive core, you can identify what you want to see more of, what you want to move toward in the future.  A central question to get you started in appreciative inquiry is:

 “It’s five years in the future; you go to work and discover that your life is the way you always wished it would be.  You are experiencing success in your job, feeling fulfilled and clearly in your “sweet spot.” Your family life is energizing, your home a place of peace and joy. You have meaningful friendships and have found a place to serve in the community that gives you a sense of giving back.” Now, describe how you got there. What specific things did you do to achieve this ideal life?

More samples of AI questions for a variety of applications can be found at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

Whatever tool(s) you choose to aid you in you in applying intentionally curiosity, be sure to identify your purpose and ask “what’s possible?” Intentional curiosity is ultimately about moving you toward your goals, helping you make positive progress in some area of your life. Being intentionally curious will lead you to useful discoveries that help you bust through walls that have hemmed you in. You never know, there just may be a great prize behind that door that you’re nervous about opening!

Go ahead…take a peek!

Recommended Resources:

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day
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Be the Change

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Fran...

Gandhi during the Salt March, March 1930. Français : Gandhi pendant la Marche du Sel, mars 1930. मराठी: महात्मा गांधी दांडी यात्रेत. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a quote-collector. I have a database of hundreds of quotes that I’ve collected over the years: everything from pithy statements about life, profound thoughts on leadership, and inspiring words that reflect truth in a compelling way. It amazes me how putting the right words in the right order make a message quotable. Some seem to have the gift of saying really insightful nuggets of wisdom in just the right way – our attention is aroused and we compelled to write the statement down…or more likely copy/paste.

Probably one of the most popular quotes of our age is

“be the change you wish to see in the world,”

spoken by Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a good one! They are deep words that call us to action – we can’t just wish change to happen, we have to put ourselves into it. And we know that Gandhi did just that, ultimately losing his life because of the changes he wished to bring about.

What is powerful about this quote is that we can apply it immediately in small ways within our own worlds, as well as in large ways by initiating or joining large-scale change efforts.

“Be the change” applies to the workplace, the family, the community, and the global stage.

  • I can be the change in my home – setting an example of healthy communication that can have a positive impact for generations to come. 
  • I can be the change in my workplace – instilling high ethical principles into my decision-making that build trust, collaboration, and progress.
  • I can be the change in my community – by getting involved in service projects and actively supporting associations that make a positive impact.
  • And on the global level, I can be the change by becoming a citizen of the world – someone who learns about other cultures and joins causes that raise people out of poverty and hopelessness.

Once you know your values and passions you can begin to look for opportunities. How can I be the change in my dysfunctional family? What new traditions can I create? What new ways of talking and behaving can I initiate to begin building the legacy I want to leave? Go through this same exercise for your workplace, church, places where you volunteer and places you read about. A great resource to help you with your values inventory is The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes & Posner.

Another quote that is humorous while at the same time profound is, “If nothing changes, nothing changes. Think about it!”

Why Would You Want to Be the Devil’s Advocate?

Imagine you’ve just pitched a great idea to your colleagues and boss. You’ve made great points, showed data to back up your recommendations, and are sure you’ve wowed the group with your amazing solution to the problem du jour. Then inevitably the colleague you knew would oppose whatever you present raises his hand and says, “I just want to be the devil’s advocate here. What about…?” You let out a controlled sigh and concentrate to hold your eyeballs in place so no one will see the eye roll you’re imagining in your mind.

So what’s the deal with this guy? Why always the devil’s advocate role for him? Does the devil really need an advocate? Maybe a more honest statement would be, “Now I’m going to criticize your idea because I don’t like it.” The devil’s advocate isn’t looking for ways to implement your idea; they’re looking for ways to prove why it doesn’t work.

When we take on this role, and we’ve all worn the badge in some meeting along the way, we shut down any meaningful dialogue and create sides. What motivates us to squash someone else’s idea? Fear of change? Envy and resentment because it wasn’t your idea?

Those who are naturally critical may think they’re doing the group a favor by challenging every suggestion, no matter how well thought out and viable. This cat-and-mouse game is seen as sport, but in reality more harm is done than good. The mouse rarely survives the claws of the cat.

What would happen if the devil’s advocate role was banned from our conference rooms? What if instead we started saying “yes, and…” when we hear a new idea.  With an attitude that says, “how can we make this work?” we can change the dialogue to something more productive and affirming. Instead of people being put on the defensive, fighting against the devil, we would encourage idea generation and look for ways to perfect the proposal or clarify points.

Does this sound too altruistic? Too soft? Are you wondering who is going to challenge all of the half-baked ideas pitched in meetings? Maybe your worry and need to challenge others’ ideas is an opportunity to evaluate your own motives.

Throwing away ideas too soon is like opening a package of flower seeds and then throwing them away because they’re not pretty.

Use the same energy you put into being the devil’s advocate into advocating the ideas of your colleagues. The positive transformation will empower you and others to make things possible, to uncover potential, and to co-create the future.

Whose Job Is It To Make Me Happy?

Who is responsible for making sure I’m happy at work? Many managers will assume the answer is supposed to be them. With engagement surveys, pressures to reduce turnover, and assumptions from employees, the finger seems to point to leaders to make sure everyone is happy in their jobs, right? I’m not so sure.

Happiness is elusive and workplace happiness appears to be hard to come by for many workers. Well-intentioned organizations design workplace cultures intended to promote greater satisfaction on the job. SAS, Google, Qualcomm, Edward Jones and W.L. Gore all seem to be getting things right.

The Gallup Organization has found that

Happy employees are better equipped to handle workplace relationships, stress, and change. Companies that understand this, and help employees improve their wellbeing, can boost their productivity.

So it’s the company’s job to make employees happy? While an organization can provide meaningful work, opportunities to grow and develop, and programs to help manage “work-life balance” I wonder how much an organization can ultimately influence happiness and wellbeing in its employees.

I think the answer has to be that it’s the job of every employee to make themselves happy. Happiness is a choice, and each individual has to make the decision to be happy despite (or perhaps in spite of) circumstances. Shawn Achor writes about this choice in The Happiness Advantage, stating that it is possible to change our mindsets and adopt a happier outlook. Achor says

The most successful people adopt a mindset that not only makes their workdays more bearable, but also helps them work longer, harder, and faster than their negative mindset peers.

Achor describes how we can change our mindsets, including thinking about tedious tasks differently. We lose out on joy when every task becomes something we “have” to do instead of something we “get” to do. The good news is that we really can rewire our brains to see menial tasks and even dreaded meetings as positive events by changing the way we think about them!

When we get work assignments that don’t thrill us, when we are asked to do one thing when we think something else would be more useful, and when we find our work dull to the point of painful, we have a choice.

  1. We can suffer through, grudgingly getting our work done but aware of how much its sucking the life out of us each minute.
  2. We can decide to start looking for a new job that provides more satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a better fit for our skills and aspirations.
  3. We can choose to change the way we think about the work. It means creating new habits that replace our default perspectives and attitudes with more useful ones.

Robert Louis Stevenson said

The habit of being happy enables one to be freed, or largely freed, from the domination of outward conditions.

Creating happiness is not about a mystical “I think happy thoughts so I am happy” new-age mindset. Not that there aren’t spiritual components to being happy, which are very important. For instance, the Apostle Paul did not have any easy life as he faced hardships and persecution on his missionary journeys. In his letter to the Philippian church, however, he says,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Paul’s secret to happiness was his perspective based on his faith. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” So maybe the key to happiness is a combination of faith-based positivity (aka hope) and the science of creating new maps for our minds that give us perspective beyond the moment and connect us to a larger purpose.

It is important for organizations to develop an engaging culture where individuals are assigned meaningful work that gives them the opportunity to do what they do best every day. Leaders should care about creating an environment that promotes satisfaction and minimizes frustrations. These types of initiatives will set the tone for happiness. But it really comes down to the individual making choices to be happy no matter the circumstances.

Tommy Newberry, a life coach and author, writes in The 4:8 Principle:

When you focus on the good, you not only notice more good but you actually create more good. Focusing on positive things causes you to search for more that’s positive. As a result, you perceive and appreciate more good, which sets the stage for even more positive circumstances. Eventually, you will have more joy, more enthusiasm, and more gratitude. This outlook draws the best out of other people and situations, creating a virtuous cycle (rather than a vicious cycle) in which you continually find and multiply what you’re looking for.

Nobody else can do that for us. So it’s my job to make myself happy by continuously choosing to think positively about my circumstances, even when my boss may be driving me crazy, I can’t seem to get certain things off my to-do list, and I’m still a work in progress.

Why You Want Your CEO to be Happy

You’ve heard the adage a happy worker is a productive worker. Well take it to the highest level of the organization and the same is true. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, “Happy CEOs are more likely to lead teams of employees who are both happy and healthy, and who find their work climate conducive to high performance.” When the CEO or any other senior leader places happiness – the joy we feel striving after potential – before success, they create a culture where people are having fun, experience hope, pride, inspiration and camaraderie.

Contrary to popular opinion, happiness causes success, not the other way around. If you’re suffering through and foregoing happiness until you achieve some level of success, you will never arrive at happy. It will elude you, because happiness isn’t about things and achievements, it’s about finding contentment despite circumstances, latching onto hope and positivity even during difficulties.

“Every time employees experience a small burst of happiness, they get primed for creativity and innovation. They see solutions they might otherwise have missed.”  – Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

CEOs and other leaders who cultivate happiness in the workplace will experience a more committed, healthy, and efficient workforce. And not only are happy CEOs (and workers) more productive, they’re smarter! According to Barbara Frederickson, a thought leader in positivity, “positive emotions expand cognition and behavioral tendencies,” making us more creative and quick on our feet.  

Happy leaders will find ways for followers to be happy. Whether energetic happiness, like joy and excitement, or subtle happiness like contentment and serenity, when these emotions are fostered in the workplace, research finds that “positive emotions transform individual employees and managers, making them more effective in the moment, and more successful in the long run. Frederickson and others in the emerging field of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) refer to this as upward spirals.” The idea is that as positive emotions build on one another over time in a cycle that increases resiliency, social integration, and capability.

You may not be able to influence the CEO to be happy, unless you are the CEO! But you do have the ability to develop positivity within yourself, creating the upward spirals that will lead to your own success.  Frederickson & her colleagues state,

“Positive meaning at work can be drawn from experiences of competence, achievement, involvement, significance, and social connection.”

Achor suggests that we can raise our happiness in our workplaces by

  • Finding something to look forward to
  • Committing conscious acts of kindness
  • Infusing positivity into our surroundings
  • Exercising
  • Using strengths & skills

Assuring Constancy Amidst Constant Change

Ruth Graham writes,

“It is difficult to trust things that change. Trust is built on the assurance of constancy.”

It’s almost cliché to say that we live in times of constant change – we know more change than we do steadiness. Fourth generation (4G) mobile technology is being released and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as generations of technology! The iPod was launched in 2001 and is in its 6th generation, meaning that the technology is waaaayyyy better today than it was in 2001, right?

Besides technology, we see change everywhere around us. Egypt is in the midst of a chaotic change to its political system as individuals take to the streets demanding to be heard. Companies have had to react to economic changes, forcing some to shut their doors for good, others to lay off scores of workers, while others took the opportunity to reinvent themselves to survive and thrive rather than fall victim of the recession.

So what is a leader to do when followers are looking for an anchor when change is swirling around them? The simple answer is character.

The leader who forgets that people are looking for stability will soon find their followers stopped in their tracks, unable to move forward because uncertainty has paralyzed them.

This disengagement occurs when leaders put forward momentum before relationships and miss opportunities to assure stability of character despite uncertainty and shifting priorities within the organization. I worked for a company that had three CEOs in less than five years and a new one was just coming in the door when I was leaving. Each executive had his own agenda, which meant no one knew from one year to the next what was going to happen to their job. It didn’t help that this company has a reputation for regular layoffs, so the level of uncertainty was magnified and pandemonium reigned. People put in their time, but politics and turf wars prevented the organization from thriving.

But there were some managers who did especially well even in this tumultuous climate. Leaders were often in the same boat as their followers however, I witnessed a couple of outliers who managed to maintain the trust of their team even though the future was uncertain. These leaders demonstrated constancy of character in the following ways:

  1. Transparency. The leaders who were best at creating constancy amidst change were honest and open. They shared their own concerns and frustrations in a way that promoted dialogue without promising anything beyond what they could commit to. They didn’t pretend and they didn’t ignore the issues, but faced them plainly and honestly.
  2. Positivity. Those leaders who could keep a proper perspective helped their followers to do the same. Positivity in the middle of uncertainty is challenging, but I saw leaders who could communicate with a long-term vision and foster a sense of “everything is going to be alright” amongst their teams. They remind people that change can be good and that even if we don’t initially like the outcome we will adapt, learn, or find something that fits us better in the long run.
  3. Reliability. Leaders who avoided jumping on the bandwagon of rumor, second-guessing, and chasing scape-goats provide an anchor for followers, a positive example of reliability and duty that strengthens the group. The reliable leader listens well but doesn’t allow finger-pointing or back-stabbing. This sends a message that the leader can be trusted and a calm in the storm.

Assuring constancy amidst constant change is a critical skill for leaders to develop in our fast-paced world.

The first century Greek philosopher Epictetus, in The Art of Living, says, “To live a life of virtue, you have to become consistent, even when it isn’t convenient, comfortable, or easy.”

Virtuous leaders who develop the consistent character traits of transparency, positivity and reliability when it is inconvenient and difficult, find that they are boosted by the support of faithful followers. This mutual partnership can withstand constant change in circumstances because it runs deeper than the external chaos in which it operates.