The surprising leadership trait you need to have...

13 July 2020 -

Person smiling in a meetingTo believe you can achieve the impossible is not naivety; it’s leadership

Kevin Murray CCMI

Leadership is not a position; it is an attitude, a state of mind. If you are a leader, you take responsibility for changing things and making things happen. Whether people want to follow you then becomes a matter of how they see you, which is determined by how you project yourself.

Leaders with a quiet confidence, an aura of self-belief and positivity, give others a sense of certainty, which has a powerful positive effect on their brain chemistry. Human beings like certainty and we hate doubt, so we love leaders who believe that we can achieve the impossible together.

That’s why, right now, after all the uncertainties and fears surrounding Covid-19 and the impact the crisis has had on people, companies and the economy, positivity is a much-needed leadership trait.

It just takes the right mindset; leaders who decide to have a positive mindset become more charismatic. Those who seek out problems and move to the sound of gunfire are magnetic. They draw followers to them because of their positivity, their certainty, their bias to action and their willingness to take accountability for their actions.

They don’t make excuses for a lack of results, meaning they take accountability for everything over which they have even the smallest element of control. No excuses. They must think in advance of potential problems and have back-up plans, consider all options and be ready to take a different course if necessary.

Positive leaders shoulder failures and share successes, never blaming others, and never talking about being let down by people. If they succeed, it was down to others; if they fail, it was down to their own shortcomings as a leader. They are certain that there is always a better way to do things. They are always looking for the next challenge to overcome. They have high standards, know that these can be achieved, and expect everyone (including themselves) to attain them. They know that persistence pays dividends.

Certainty has a powerful positive effect on our brains

Positive leaders provide certainty, and certainty has a powerful and positive effect on the brains of their followers. A sense of certainty releases positive neurochemicals in the brain, like serotonin and dopamine, and these create positive feelings that encourage people to join in and give of their best. Few things create a greater sense of uncertainty than a leader who keeps changing their mind: indecisiveness or an unwillingness to make a decision is fatal to the confidence of followers.

Decisive, charismatic leaders paint as vivid a picture of success as they can – from how it will feel, to who will be impacted, to what benefits will be derived. They convey this picture to every member of the team, so that every individual member can recite it as well as the leaders themselves can, and in as much detail. This creates alignment and a combined sense of certainty and conviction that is hard to resist.

Optimism is an essential ingredient of any significant achievement. Positive leaders reframe challenges wisely and are careful to avoid foolhardiness – however, they don’t let fear stop them, and it is sometimes their positivity alone that can make the difference.

How easy is it to achieve something if you don’t really believe you can achieve it? How likely is it that you will overcome challenges if you are critical of the team around you? How hard is work when the people around you are negative and defeatist? Impossible, right? On the other hand, one positive person who absolutely believes we can do this thing can make a huge difference to the team, to our mood and to our willingness to even try.

Every great leader that I’ve had the privilege of working with had (what often seemed to me) naive optimism. There were times I felt like that optimism was completely unwarranted, but I then saw how it helped to generate the energy and commitment from the team that was necessary to achieve the results. These leaders taught me that optimism without action is simply wishful thinking. They knew the odds, and they knew how significant the challenge was that faced us. They also knew that nothing great happened without some element of risk. They were prepared to take those risks and be accountable for failure.

Positive leaders give others confidence

Positive leaders know how necessary it is to show people their confidence in their ability to achieve the impossible. They know that positivity drives better performance and innovation and boosts the wellbeing of the team.

Innovation depends on being open to new ways of thinking, lots of alternative ways of doing things, and a willingness to take risks and encourage other people to take risks. It’s hard to drown out the voices of those who keep saying ‘We’ve tried this before and it failed’, or ‘That will never work’, or ‘That seems really risky’. This is what happens when pessimism dominates the team; already the negative energy has killed off any impetus to try. It is easy to magnify problems, which often have roots in our most basic fears. If you believe a project will flop, it will.

This is not to say that there isn’t a role for pessimism, because there are appropriate times when a cautious and risk-avoiding approach is necessary, to avoid the terrible consequences of ill-thought-through action.

Optimism requires wisdom

Optimism therefore requires the flexibility to appropriately assess situations as well as the wisdom to recognise appropriate courses of action. There will be times when a ‘can do’ attitude is necessary, even in the face of challenges, and there will be times when it is simply unwise to proceed. Good leaders practise the art of seeing the opportunity by reframing difficult situations as challenges filled with opportunities. Optimists are more persistent and do not abandon hope at the first sign of trouble. They also tend to expect the best from others, and that expectation itself can drive better performance.

When you show people that you believe in them, they believe in themselves. When you expect more from people, they expect more from themselves. This phenomenon is called ‘the Pygmalion effect’, where high expectations of a person have a positive effect on that person’s performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is ‘the Golem effect’, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.

Positivity and optimism build a platform for creativity. Your team will always respond to it. It’s not a question of whether you can solve an issue or come up with a new idea, it’s only a question of how.

Kevin Murray CCMI, is a business author and speaker with more than 45 years of leadership experience. This is an exclusive extract from his new book Charismatic Leadership: The skills you can learn to motivate high performance in others (published by Kogan Page). You can find out more about his work here.

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