In the first chapter of The Leadership Challenge, 4th edition, we tell the story of Claire Owen, founder and Leader of Vision & Values of the SG Group in London, England. The SG Group is a 110-person firm that's a collection of four businesses designed to meet the marketing and human resource recruitment needs of agencies and corporations. Claire is a living example of the phrase, "enthusiasm is infectious." In one interview with Claire, she said to me: "If you are excited about the business, and if you are excited about where it is going and what is happening in it, then there is a buzz, a physical buzz. It’s my job to create that kind of place.”
Knowing the effect this kind of leadership has on others, Claire added, "You see that I get excited about things. When I do, people go, 'Well, Claire is excited by it, so I'm going to get excited by it. She believes in and she thinks it is going to be great—well I think it is going to be great.' That's really all I do."
Creating a workplace with "buzz" should be every leader's objective. People want leaders who are positive and optimistic. They want leaders who are inspiring and full of hope for the future, and Claire takes that to heart.
I mention this example because in these volatile economic times, when the news is worrisome at best, and downright scary at times, it's pretty easy for folks to go negative. And people go negative even faster if their leaders preach gloom and doom. Or even when they just mope around a bit.
For example, read what Eric Vyverberg said about his own contagious leadership experiment. Eric is a small business owner who understands from direct experience how emotions are catching. As Eric tells it in his blog, the dynamics of his five-person office are like a "Petri dish." That can be good and bad, he says. The bad is when someone comes in with a bug or cold, everyone catches it. "Being such a small/interactive office," Eric writes, "Everyone gets sick. This 2000 square foot Petri dish cultivates infectious disease."
But good also grows there. "As a leader in our office," he reports, "it is my responsibility to bring a winning attitude every day. Just like an illness that goes around from person to person, if either of the partners in the business brings a negative attitude to the office, it infects the others around us. It even infects the sub-contractors that work for us!"
One day not too long ago, Eric tested his Petri dish observations. He decided he would see what happened when he intentionally exhibited a negative mood. "I moped my way around the office one morning (academy award winning stuff I might add). I made it very clear through my actions (and not anything verbal), that I was not interested in anyone or anything around the office. I moped upstairs and closed my door. Aside from the other partner, everyone fed off of this. Later that afternoon, I had one employee stumble into my office and say, 'I don’t know why but I’m just not motivated to do anything else today.'" "AMAZING!!!!!!," (capital letters are his) was he conclusion.
Claire's and Eric's experiences illustrate the positive power of positive leadership—and the negative influence of those who exude pessimism, or are just in a bad mood. People feed off of their leaders' moods and their leaders' views of the world. Positive leadership breeds positive emotions. Negative leadership breeds negative emotions. In uncertain and challenging times, it's especially important for leaders to be mindful of how important it is to accentuate the positive.
This doesn't mean leaders should ignore reality. Leaders shouldn't be Pollyannas anymore than they should be killjoys. In a blog I wrote in May of this year, I quoted what the late Norman Cousins had to say about the how we need to face the facts. Cousins is the former editor of Saturday Review and author of 20 books, including Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. That book is about people with serious illnesses who beat the medical odds. In it he wrote, "They responded with a fierce determination to overcome. They didn't deny the diagnosis. They denied the verdict that is usually associated with it." It's essential that leaders define the reality of our illness. It's also important that they defy the verdict of our doom.
Leaders must be honest with their constituents about the state of the organization's or the nation's health. Then they have a choice. They can tell us we're doomed or they can tell us that if we apply ourselves—and if we're willing to struggle and suffer—we shall overcome one day.
Call it the physics of leadership: positives attract, negatives repel. In order for us get through the mess we're in, we have to believe that there is a positive future out there. It's imperative that leaders paint that attractive picture and generate the human energy necessary to enact it. As Claire says, it's the leaders job to create that kind of a place. It's the leaders job to create buzz.