Bringing Out Our Worst, or Our Best?

Alan Mulally, outgoing chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co., speaks during a town hall meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, U.
Alan Mulally, outgoing chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co., speaks during a town hall meeting in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, June 23, 2014. Mulally said he'll continue to advise his successor, Mark Fields, and remain in touch with the company after he steps down next month. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

From the media and comments online, much that is written about leaders these days seems to be negative: They are incompetent, arrogant, unethical, greedy -- the list goes on and on.

No doubt there is a great deal of anger and cynicism in the population, whether it is coming from employees, shareholders, or voters. When things go wrong in our lives, we are quick to place the blame for our ills on our leaders, and expect our leaders to fix them.

Are we justified in doing so? Or are we externalizing our problems by blaming our leaders? Is it time to accept responsibility for our lives and take action to make things better?

External Atmosphere Turns Negative

We live in a highly imperfect world, filled with violence, income inequality, lack of jobs, corruption, ill health, and defective products. As much as we would like to eradicate these ills, there are no easy solutions leaders can apply to make them disappear.

Meanwhile, political leaders are fanning the flames of anger and distrust in order to gain popular support. Their words are intensified by the 24-hour media cycle with every outlet looking to gain viewers by highlighting the urgency of these ills. This negative atmosphere brings out the worst in us, not the best.

These approaches are to no avail. All we are doing is further dividing the country between rich and poor, conservatives and liberals, free traders and protectionists, hawks and doves. The next President will be no more able to eliminate these problems than the last two have been. Blaming the media doesn't solve anything because their entire incentive structure is built on giving the people the stories they want and thus earning higher ratings.

In business, activist investors assault corporate boards with simplistic, short-term solutions to break up companies, leverage their balance sheets, or buy back stock by cutting investments required for their strategic success. These investors can find something to criticize in every company. Shareholders often give them the benefit of the doubt in order to see near-term bumps in stock prices.

Cost of Toxic Leaders

Toxic leaders create cynical environments that bring out the worst in people and drag everyone down. Like malignant tumors, negative attitudes spread throughout organizations until everyone is playing "the blame game" and avoiding responsibility for the problems they create. Once this happens, organizations are on their way to self-destructing, creating in their wake enormous harm for employees and shareholders alike. At this point, the organization is no longer able to sustain itself and begins to unravel. That's what happened to Sears, General Motors, Lehman Brothers, Kodak, and other victims of politics, cynicism, and short-term thinking.

Bringing Out People's Best

For authentic leaders, the challenge is the opposite: To bring out the best in people. It is to see their potential, empower them to take responsibility for their actions, and work together to make things better for all people. That's what great political leaders like Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela have done in years past. It is what today's leaders in business, health care, nonprofits, academia, and yes -- in politics -- need to do to bring us together to make life better for all people and to ameliorate our ills.

Building something comes with a multitude of trials and tribulations, yet the best leaders find ways to celebrate progress. As I highlight in my newest book, Discover Your True North, recent scientific research shows that positive approaches to empower people is a must-have leadership trait. By and large, the leaders I know personally are doing just that. They are doing their best to empower people to grow, contribute, and live happy and meaningful lives. To use the words of author Adam Grant, they are "givers," not "takers."

This approach is consistent with the positive psychology movement pioneered by psychologist Martin Seligman. The three aims of positive psychology are:

  1. Building human strength
  2. Making the lives of people fulfilling
  3. Nurturing the talent that resides in all of us
In his book
, Daniel Goleman describes multiple experiments demonstrating the impact of positive interactions with employees. One experiment showed employees perceived negative feedback more favorably when it was delivered in warm, supportive tones. When good news or positive feedback was delivered in negative tones, employees left the discussions feeling poorly, instead of feeling elated by their successes. Seligman's research shows a 3:1 "positive-to-negative" statements ratio is necessary for healthy professional relationships.

When organizations hit roadblocks, people naturally get upset, and often their anger shows, but that doesn't resolve anything. As Positive Intelligence author Shirzad Chamine says, there is an inner, often unconscious dialogue going on between your "sage" and your "saboteurs." As leaders recognize this dialogue, they will be alert to avoiding negative or attacking responses that sabotage healthy relationships. By inquiring rather than directing, leaders can find opportunities embedded in the challenges their organizations face. They also build more effective relationships with colleagues who count on them to help solve problems, not just assign blame.

Positive Leadership and Teamwork Turned Around Ford

Navigating severe challenges requires strong, courageous, and authentic leaders dedicated to bringing out the best in people and empowering them to peak performance. That's what Alan Mulally did at Ford Motor.

On his first day as Ford's CEO in 2006, Mulally asked to tour Ford's famous Rouge plant where Henry Ford created the Model T. Mulally was informed by one of his top executives, "Our leaders don't talk directly to factory employees." Ignoring that advice, he went to the plant immediately to talk to first-line employees.

Mullaly also set up mandatory weekly management meetings, termed the business process review (BPR), for his top executives to get to the root cause of Ford's long-standing problems. He quickly discovered that Ford's problems went way beyond financial losses: the culture at Ford was broken and in need of massive transformation. He observed, "Ford had been going out of business for 40 years, and no one would face that reality."

In response, Mulally developed One Ford, an initiative based on "focus, teamwork and a single global approach, aligning employee efforts toward a common definition of success." He started by redesigning internal meetings. As described in American Icon, meetings had become "arenas for mortal combat" in which employees practiced self-preservation, trying to identify flaws in each other's plans instead of recommending solutions to their problems.

Mulally reframed these meetings from negative to positive, fostering a safe environment where people had open and honest discussions without fear of blame. Instead of attacking executives for their problems, Mulally encouraged collaborative approaches to problem solving. He noted, "If you have a common purpose and an environment in which people want to help others succeed, the problems will be fixed quickly."

Mulally introduced a "traffic light" system to weekly BPRs in which executives indicated progress on key initiatives as green, yellow, or red. After four meetings in which all programs were labelled green, Mulally confronted his team, "We are going to lose $18 billion this year, so is there anything that's not going well?" His question was met with stony silence.

The following week, North American President Mark Fields showed a red indicator that a new vehicle launch would be delayed. Other executives assumed Fields would be fired over the bad news. Instead, Mulally began clapping and said, "Mark, that is great visibility." He asked the group, "What can we do to help Mark out?" As he frequently told his leaders, "You have a problem; you are not the problem."

Mulally describes his leadership style as "positive leadership--conveying the idea that there is always a way forward." He says a critical part of positive leadership is "reinforcing the idea that everyone is included. When people feel accountable and included, it is more fun. It is just more rewarding to do things in a supportive environment."

With determination and positive leadership, Mulally created a culture of effective problem solving and teamwork. As a result, his team triumphed to keep Ford out of bankruptcy, reversed market share losses with improved designs and quality, brought jobs back to the U.S. from overseas plants, and restored profitability by becoming cost competitive with foreign producers.

Weak leaders focus on all the things that are going wrong. Great leaders like Mulally bring out the best in us. The most effective leaders apply the principles of positive psychology, ensuring their interactions with employees contain a healthy balance of positive and constructive feedback. They maintain an optimistic outlook despite setbacks, reinforcing that there is a hopeful way forward as they work to create positive environments and positive leaders throughout their organizations.