By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
Some of the most exceptional leaders I know get discouraged. They give their all to deliver results by setting strategies, creating organizations, engaging people, and allocating resources, but their work is demanding and wearing. Sometimes their discouragement comes from an event (e.g., a lost customer or employee, a product or service issue, a strategic miss) and sometimes from the unrelenting demands of leadership. To respond, these leaders might improve by analyzing the past to discover what went wrong, undergoing a 360 to figure out their missing skills and actions, renewing by taking care of themselves through physical or social improvement or enlisting a coach to help them become more resilient and grounded.
Even with these actions, leaders often feel like Sisyphus who could never get his rock to the top of the hill. To help, I have often coached leaders to ask reflection questions: “What has worked and not worked? What have you learned? Knowing what you now know, what strategic and specific actions would you have done differently? How can you show true grit?” These questions enable reflection on the past.
More recently, my coaching has taken on different tactics. Instead of learning from the past to improve, I ask leaders to envision a future to fulfill their aspirations. Improving on the past leads to incremental change; aspiring for a future encourages vanguard change. Focusing on the past on what went wrong often reminds leaders of how far they have yet to go and can lead to further discouragement; anticipating the future and what can be, helps leaders see progress to where they are going and provide hope for moving ahead. Building on what has been comes from learning; creating what can be comes from celebrating and savoring by pondering three questions.
1. What is your desired future state?
Leaders envision an aspirational future (whatever they want to call it: vision, mission, purpose, goals) by setting a direction that they can be pulled to, celebrate, and savor through being:
- Outside-in by anticipating both external business conditions and customer opportunities.
- Inspirational by creating a passion for all those affected by the future state (employees, customers, investors).
- Realistically ambitious by stretching to what can be considering accessible resources.
Leaders articulate what they want for themselves and for their organization less by looking backward and more by seeking forward. Celebrating an aspirational and yet-to-be-realized future allows leaders the liberty to turn their personal values into organizational directions.
So I now encourage leaders to ponder such questions as, “What do you want (or hope for): for you as a leader and for the organization you lead? How will your aspiration inspire and add value to others?”
2. What are some simple next steps to moving forward?
To realize what one wants requires turning aspirations into actions. In realizing a new vision, actions sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Instead of lamenting what has gone wrong, celebrating what has gone right and learning from those things may be better for creating positive momentum towards a future.
For example, to improve physical and mental health, the focus was often on what was wrong, to diagnose the present problem. In more recent years, physical fitness has often come from more preventive care and proactive actions like immunizations, screenings, proper diet, exercise, or sleep. And in the mental health field, positive psychology emphasizes strengths to pursue more than weaknesses to overcome. Lessons from these evolving disciplines apply to leadership.
To improve leadership, now may be the time to focus less on what has not worked and more on what can be done to move toward an aspirational goal.
A leader I coached recently, who was somewhat discouraged by not realizing all of his goals, reflected on the incredible progress he had made in his first couple of years. He had helped his organization create a new team that worked well together, embed a set of principles and values that were beginning to shape a new culture, upgrade the brand as experienced by both customers and employees, and increase acceptance among his employees of the need to let go of the past to succeed in the future.
On a personal level, he also was able to celebrate and savor his personal development by upgrading some latent skills he had not exercised before.
While he knew that not all had gone as he intended, or hoped, he could celebrate and savor personal and organizational progress. He was then able to identify simple steps to continue to make progress. He left our meeting feeling a little less discouraged by what was not done, encouraged by the progress to date and enthused about what could be done.
So I now ask leaders, “How much closer are you to your aspiration today than in the past? Have you seen evidence of success that you can celebrate that keeps you motivated to get there? How do you feel about the progress you have made?”
3. Who goes with me?
Leadership is a team activity. It requires empowering others to share a direction and to co-create actions to make the vision real. Good leadership requires celebrating and savoring what others have done. Others are generally more empowered by our praising and building on their progress rather than highlighting their limitations. Leaders who lead others share credit in success and take responsibility for failures.
I now ask leaders to ponder: “Who has enabled your leadership journey? How are you celebrating their participation? How can you help them savor their progress so you can keep moving forward together?”
To overcome inevitable leadership discouragement, with many others, I fully endorse learning from failure (sometimes called grit, resilience, perseverance, learning, or growth mindset) and recently gave my wife an embroidered pillow with the message: “I’m not failing; I’m learning.”
But I am realizing that to make personal progress may also (and even more so) come from envisioning what is right and moving toward it. Maybe the time has come to not only learn from failure but celebrate success; to have a growth mindset to undo the past and a hopeful attitude to create the future; to experience sorrow for mistakes made and joy for the good done as well as what can be; to face challenges by running into trials and savor opportunities by exploring potential; and so forth.
So when I coach executives, my questions lately are less about what they have learned from the past and more about what they can anticipate for the future.
How do you celebrate and savor the positive and what can be?