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Like many of you, I’ve been in situations in my career where I didn’t like the way things were being done.  Maybe it was my boss, or the executive team, or the engineering strategy, or the marketing positioning, or the decline in revenue, or…well, you get the picture.   Things just weren’t all that great for me and/or for everyone else.  And here’s my true confession: when that happened, I sometimes joined the chorus of unhappy conversations, hashing over the problems, criticizing and complaining.  It seemed to relieve the tension, to clear the air.  We got things off our chest.  We said it like it was.  We felt powerful and smart because we understood what was REALLY happening; we saw through the smoke screen and we couldn’t be fooled.

I began to see things differently when I was working for a legendary technology company experiencing a precipitous decline in fortunes.  Every day delivered another blow of bad news, and anxious and disbelieving employees kibitzed and second guessed every corporate decision.  But this time, bemoaning all the terrible things we were experiencing didn’t make me feel better.  In fact, it became clear that we were talking ourselves into a sad and miserable corner, where productivity took second place to our endless recitations of doom and gloom.  This gave me a lot to think about, and in the ensuing years I’ve spent a great deal of time working with this complex question:  when is it appropriate to “tell it like it is” and when is it more valuable to find the possibility in the situation, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to calm the waters?   The answer to this question speaks directly to what kind of leader we want to be.

It can be easy to gather people around us when we take the low road.  Humans are a rather whiny species — quick to blame, to cite grievance, to demand satisfaction.   Articulate complainers can find many points of validation for their opinions.   But those opinions, however well expressed, can position us as negative leaders, making everyone more miserable by focusing on what is broken, by amplifying what we are afraid of or angry about, and as a cohort, we can’t go anywhere but down.

We may not always be in control of the important influences in our lives.  The economy, the demand for our product, the weather, the competition  –  these often impact us from what seems like another universe.  But we always have an opportunity to be calm and trustworthy.  To listen quietly.  To validate someone’s discomfort without throwing gasoline on the fire.  To acknowledge difficulties and still offer a way out.  To hold our ground.  To give people the benefit of the doubt.  To use language that empowers.   I’m not talking about blind optimism, that is about as effective as using a smile for an umbrella.  I’m talking about focusing on what is possible, reminding ourselves that we have the power to effect change, and affirming our strength and courage.

No one is perfect, and no one leads perfectly.  But when things are moving fast, and and uncertainty is the order of the day, we need to offer leadership that inspires, energizes, and motivates.  This is the kind of leadership that brings us out of difficulties and back to prosperity.   We have an opportunity every day to make profound, positive changes by leading from a higher ground.