Do you see life as “win-lose” or “win-win”? Are you a pessimist or an optimist? If you want to strengthen your leadership capacity, try turning the alarm bells down and the joy of living up. Most people respond to positive leaders because they feel more creative, enthusiastic, and willing to persist through difficulties. So say Martin Seligman and many other positive psychology researchers.
We have our share of “wedge” leaders but they always fail to inspire. They operate as if they were on a battlefield dealing with enemies and the perceived subversive side of people or the “other” side. Such negative-thinking leaders create low trust, fearful, intolerant environments. In the short run, leaders who act as if the “glass is half empty” may gain compliance. But they never win hearts, an essential pre-requisite of leading change.
As Seligman describes in Authentic Happiness, “positive emotion causes better commerce with the world”. It opens our minds to new ideas and new experiences. Philosophers use the term ethical “realists” to describe people who believe that their fellow humans are generally purpose-driven, want to make a difference and find meaning in their lives, including at work. Barbara Erickson, at the University of Michigan, places positive emotion in the bigger context of evolution. By engaging our strengths, of which optimism is one among many, we help ourselves to continue our survival. That is, by working on the glass half filled side of the equation, we “broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself”. A positive frame of mind, it appears, is particularly helpful in difficult times.
Some leaders may worry that all this happiness interferes with critical thinking. That is, seeing the world through “rosy-coloured glasses” clouds good judgment. But, not so according to the researchers. When events are threatening, happy people apparently readily change tactics, introduce a healthy, skeptical mindset into the situation and bear down with an analytical set of tools. In that good problem-solving regardless of circumstance depends on an open mind and a willingness to engage with others, better to be an optimist than a pessimist!
It’s true that some of us have more positive affect than others—just like we’re all creative but we have different levels. Our genetic heritage charts our emotional path; however, it does not control us. We can through our will or intention develop a greater capacity to work on the joyful side of life to our benefit.
Take the win-lose scenario. In the film Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe, we are introduced to the thesis of the nonzero sum game in which the net result is positive (not one side or person winning and the other losing). In biology as in human history, we are seeing the impact of this theory. Despite our current experience of terrorism and other terrible acts against others, anthropologists contend that over the centuries and across the world, we have been and are moving from savage to barbarian to civilization. Translating this into “living” organizations and cultures, the more they utilize positive-sum games as a way of operating, the increased probability of surviving and flourishing.
Positive feeling is, in Seligman’s view, a win-win approach. From a leader, it sends a signal of “here-be-growth”, not win-lose, but expansiveness and wins for everyone.
The pessimists will still caution that there are times when deadly competition faces us and we must act. Eat or be eaten. Live or die. Fear and anxiety may serve us better under such dire circumstances than seeing the best in people. There are times in organizations for this mindset, for leadership that takes us through situations that threaten our survival. In society, we have our police forces and legal systems to keep dangerous behaviour in check. In the meantime, let the rest of us work on the better side of humans—a key role for leaders. Seligman’s quote from Thomas Edison, one of the world’s greatest inventors, is most apt: “if we did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves”.