When Ford CEO Alan Mulally was president at Boeing, it was widely expected that he would be made CEO after a decade of successes at the company, which included shepherding of the aircraft maker through a vibrant recovery following the heavy impact of 9/11. Understandably, Mulally was devastated when Boeing passed him over for the top job. But he refused to harp on the negative because, as he said, “a bad attitude simply erases everyone else’s memory of the incredible progress achieved.” Why become “the bitter guy” and tarnish his great progress, he thought, when he could remain in everyone’s eyes as a proud, successful leader? He took the high road and was promptly recruited by Ford to re-ignite the massive automobile manufacturer.
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One of the biggest challenges for leaders, particularly newer ones, is to remain positive in the face of inevitable setbacks. So many things happen that can derail us from what we are trying to achieve, such as changing market conditions, weak sales figures, low worker productivity or morale, and more. Leaders who begin with great optimism and energy could easily lose the wind from their sails and spiral into a downward funk when they start to experience obstacles, setbacks and self-doubt. Compounding matters is that many of us can be overly harsh and unjust to ourselves, in a way that we would never be with others. This can cause stress and despondency, resulting in lower self-confidence.
One way that leaders can help themselves to see beyond the moment is to engage in positive thinking. This means that you believe that the best is going to happen in every situation rather than the worst. Positive thinking helps you to approach unpleasantness in a more productive way and deal with the things that must be attended to so that you can move forward as quickly as possible.
Positive thinking is not naiveté; nor does it suggest that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life's less pleasant situations. It simply expresses the belief that you will find a way forward in every situation in a manner that is most healthy productive.
This may sound simple enough but for many of us this can be far from easy to implement. Many folks are inclined to see their glasses as half-empty. For them, the optimism and positive press that accompanied them on their way in will not sustain their attitudes and energy levels for very long unless they can find a way to adjust their thinking.
How can we remain positive in the face of adversity? Start by identifying and challenging your negative thoughts. Say, for example, you pinpoint the following concerns:
- Feelings that you are not fully prepared for this position.
- Worries about how others will react to your processes, decisions and / or change initiatives.
- A lurking anxiety that things outside your control will undermine your efforts.
Now, ask yourself whether each one is reasonable and stands up to a deeper analysis. Let’s practice this using the above list.
- Preparation – Look yourself in the mirror and ask whether you have trained thoroughly for this position, in your schooling and through your professional experiences. If not, now would be an ideal time to secure a coach or a mentor to help you work through bumps and challenges. Otherwise, you should be just fine.
- Others’ reactions – People will generally respond favorably if they feel that you are well prepared, that you listened well to their thoughts and concerns, and that you made your best efforts to succeed. Do the right things and be confident that your people will support you.
- What about the things that I can’t control? – No leader can fully plan for every eventuality. However, if you’ve done contingency planning and considered common risks you should be well prepared for what’s to come.
Fears can easily grip us at moments of uncertainty. When you challenge your fears through careful, rational analysis, it becomes much easier to isolate the real issues and determine whether there is any merit to the fear. Where there is, take appropriate action. Otherwise, rest easy knowing that you’ve done everything you can to be successful.
Here are some other strategies that can help us think and behave in a more positive and optimistic way:
- Embrace a healthier lifestyle – Regular exercise can positively affect mood and reduce stress. Maintain a healthy diet to fuel your mind and body.
- Become more self-aware – Intermittently throughout the day, stop and evaluate what you’re thinking. Keep notes over a two-week period to see what kind of trends you can identify.
- Take it slow – If you see that are not as optimistic as you would like to be, start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.
- Laugh it off – Stress can make us tighten up and hunker down. Laughing has the opposite effect. It loosens us and allows us to let go and see things for what they really are. To quote Lord Byron, “Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.”
- Surround yourself with positive people – Make sure those in your life are positive, supportive people. Their energy is contagious and their sunny outlook will change the way that you look at things. Negative people feed your anxieties and stress levels. They may also make you doubt your ability to succeed.