By: Chris White, Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan
There are sessions taught in some companies these days on “Executive Presence.” Such courses help high-potential employees to walk, talk, and look like a leader is meant to look. Whatever that is.
All too often, programs like these emphasize techniques people can employ to create a certain impression, rather than their underlying leadership principles and values. Consequently, the practices advocated are not strongly rooted in integrity. Nobody enjoys feeling like they are on the receiving end of a technique that someone is trying in order to get what they want. We call that manipulation. When people try to be someone they are not, we experience it as superficial, inauthentic and insincere.
Instead, let us pay more attention to our belief systems about leadership and organizations. Here are three mental shifts that allow the practices of being a positive leader to be enacted with integrity, and real impact.
1. From fixed to growth mindset
Do you believe that your abilities in a particular area are set in stone, or do you believe that -- given proper attention -- that they can improve? Do you hold the same belief about those around you? How you answer those questions may have implications for happiness and performance related outcomes, according to research by Carol Dweck. In short, cultivating a growth mindset – one that emphasizes the learning journey over the immediate results – helps drive a range of helpful outcomes.
We can help ourselves to adopt a growth mindset by being deliberate about our learning experiences in our day-to-day roles. Sue Ashford and Scott DeRue, faculty associates at the Center for Positive Organizations, call this “mindful engagement.” Rather than being dependent on standalone training sessions, the mindful engagement process can be applied to many of our ongoing tasks and responsibilities. For instance, perhaps you want to get better at leading a team meeting, or conducting a performance appraisal for the first time, the process can be broken down into three main steps:
a) Set learning goals. Before beginning any particular experience, identify your learning goals. What is it that you are seeking to develop here? What experiments are you running?
b) Get input. While undertaking the experience, the researchers recommend collecting feedback from others. What is going well? What is not? Why?
c) Debrief. Afterward, conduct an After Action Review. What should we keep for next time? What should we adjust for next time?
2. From problem solving to possibility finding
Sometimes, there are problems that do need to be fixed. So fix them! Positive leadership does not mean ignoring things that need to be improved. But many people go overboard with an obsessive focus on problem solving.
We see the obsession all around us. Organizational antibodies just love to find initiatives that do not look like the rest of the system. They kill everything that looks different by a thousand cuts. “We tried that once and it failed,” says one colleague. “We could never try that here, it wouldn’t work,” says another. Or, sometimes, you will just get ignored. These are all insidious ways of damping down the enthusiasm of those trying to create positive change.
As leaders, we can choose to place the majority of our attention and leadership energy on what is working well. Part of the key to creating sustainable change is to carefully ration the amount of change imposed from the outside. Instead, it is almost always better to find what is already working inside an organization and amplify it. “What is going well here?” positive leaders ask on a daily basis. “How could we make it even better?”
3. From hierarchical thinking to influence without authority
When you think of getting things done in your organization, do you picture an organizational chart? Or do you imagine a network of relationships? In reality, of course, most organizations are both hierarchical and based on networks of relationships. However, the concept to which you assign primacy here says something about how you think of the workplace.
Positive leaders recognize that seldom are organizational decisions made by a single dominant player. Rather, there are influence systems around decision makers, where people are constantly jockeying for position. Within these systems, the degree to which you positively energize those around you can in turn impact the influence you have in the organization and the performance. By energizing others with character strengths such as compassion, presence, enthusiasm, purpose, generosity, humor, and care, you can both improve performance, and become more influential in the system. In turn, you may also make the culture more resilient.
Adopt a growth mindset. Encourage it in others. Find and amplify the good. Be a positive energizer. Help others to be positive energizers too. That’s the kind of executive whose presence I want to be in.
Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Consortium of Positive Organizations, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.