Unloose Spring in Your Organization

03/27/2015 09:13 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Spring is upon us and change is in the air. On the college campus where I work, cabin feverish students are ahead of the trend. With snow barely a memory, they're wearing shorts, drinking iced coffee, and using the vaguely soggy grass to nap, study, and toss Frisbees.

Off campus, a more universal transition is unfolding step by step in predictable patterns. Dormant energy that has been stored in root systems is now letting loose. Buds are rising through the surface and new growth is on display. Honeybees are breaking winter clusters, venturing out from insular hives, and engaging in a generative give and take with neighboring plants. Ground squirrels are returning from hibernation and migratory birds from wintering grounds. They are hungry and on a mission.

The approach of April, as Shakespeare wrote, has "put a spirit of youth in everything."

As leaders, our challenge is to create the same spirit of efficiency, growth, collaboration, and ambition, and replenish it through all seasons. We can't do it alone, but here are three ideas for engaging others to create a more permanent spring in your organization:

1. Put meaning and purpose at the forefront.

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, referenced Nietzsche in his 1959 Man's Search for Meaning with the phrase, "Those who have a 'why' to live can bear almost any 'how'." More recently, several thought leaders and practitioners have reminded us of the importance of 'why' in the workplace, as a key driver of leadership, motivation, and performance.

Rich Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc. and CEO of Menlo Innovations, is a true believer. His custom software company puts purpose at the center of its culture. Sheridan's employees, like most people, aspire to be part of something larger than themselves. In his words, "they want to have a lasting and valued effect on the world."

Menlo's compelling "why" -- to "end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology" -- is reinforced by its "how." Join thousands of visitors who tour Menlo's open office each year and you'll find high-tech anthropologists discovering and championing client needs, paired programmers checking and challenging each other's work, users testing new interfaces and features, project management systems that eliminate ambiguity, and a work culture that allows team members to thrive in their professional and personal lives. Every piece is engineered to eliminate the suffering ordinarily associated with software development, and to produce glitch-free applications that are adopted and loved. The result, according to Sheridan, is joy for everyone involved.

It's now commonplace to say that a sense of purpose must be intentionally hardwired into the culture, as it is at Menlo. The stories we tell, rituals we create, artifacts we display, people we hire, and behaviors we reward all have an impact.

It's less commonplace to look in the mirror and reflect on our own energy. Yet, we can't expect others to passionately commit unless we are passionately committed. Do you have a strong sense of meaning and purpose? Are you behaving in ways that enable others see and feel it? What can you change to clarify and communicate the "why" of your work?

2. Change how your organization defines leadership.

All too often, we equate leadership with rank, ceding responsibility to people who hold greater positional authority. If they lack integrity or capability, we can be overtaken by feelings of frustration or hopelessness. We point fingers; we search job boards; we stay home. In fact, Gallup's annual polling reveals that roughly 70 percent of the working population is not engaged or is actively disengaged, meaning people are so unhappy that they deliberately undermine the work of others. The results are disastrous for productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, and profitability.

For your team to flip the script and become more actively engaged, it must first understand leadership in a new way.

Positive organizational scholars have studied exceptionally engaged workplaces, where people innovate, take initiative, continuously improve, and collaborate as if they co-own the company. One of them, University of Michigan's Robert Quinn, has identified approaches to leadership as a key differentiator. He teaches students and executives from hundreds of companies that leadership is not a position or even a set of techniques and tools. Rather, it is a state of mind.

Most of us spend most of our time in a normal state of mind, according to Quinn. Here we stay in our comfort zones, avoid ambiguity, act out of self-interest, and make decisions based on expediency rather than principle. In contrast, we become leaders when we enter an alternative state of mind. Here, we are driven to achieve exceptional results, even if it means leaving our comfort zones behind. We develop the courage to embrace ambiguity. We discover empathy, replacing self-interest with a commitment to serving others and the greater good. We find the integrity to make decisions and take actions that align with our values.

In this state of mind, exceptional leadership becomes possible. It can be achieved by anyone, anywhere in your organization. When it pervades, it becomes a powerful source of energy and renewal. Are you reaffirming traditional views about leadership, where it is the exclusive domain of people in positions of authority? Or are you redefining leadership in your workplace and enabling, recognizing, and rewarding leaders at all levels? Whether you know it or not, you are doing one or the other.

3. Encourage and model learning.

If you accept that leadership is not a formal position to be achieved, you must also accept that you will never reach your peak. In exceedingly complex and dynamic times, you and your team members must always be learning and leading in increasingly effective ways.

Are you prioritizing learning and creating a culture that welcomes risk-taking and failure? Are you seeking new experiences, stretching yourself and others beyond current capabilities? Are you having developmental conversations with team members, giving and receiving honest feedback, and regularly convening people to reflect on individual and collective learning?

If so, you may be on a path to creating a permanent spring in your organization, where people are engaged and growing, taking responsibility for leadership, and collaborating toward the fulfillment of an energizing higher purpose.

Change will be in the air again on May 14-15 when leading practitioners and scholars gather at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business for the annual Positive Business Conference. Join us, and together we will explore the most inspiring and practical approaches to sowing the seeds of positive business.

Brian Flanagan is managing director of the Sanger Leadership Center at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.