Leading in Tough Times: It’s Good to Be Positive, Because it Always Matters

As a leader how do you deal with with negative energy?

This has come up a lot lately, so I wanted to talk more about this point I mentioned a while back as one of my Top 11 Leadership Values. (It’s #4)

It is never the wrong choice to be positive and to lead. When I say this I do not mean you should bury the problems and pretend everything is OK. Quite the opposite.

Face reality

I mean jump in with both feet, acknowledge how ugly it is, and personally help find a way out of it. When it gets bad…

OK, so they said there would be no layoffs, and now they are laying people off. They are treating people like crap. They don’t care. People are pissed off.

Now there is even more pressure on schedules and cost cutting. My boss has checked out. No one has my back. I am getting blamed for things that are not my fault.

My organization is likely to be shut down, so why should I care. Nothing I do matters.

What will you do next?

Winston Churchill once said, “If you are going through hell, keep going!”

You have a choice: Jump on all the crap with an equally negative attitude, or face it head on as leader who intends to make a positive difference for the business and the people.

Why do people choose to be negative?

  • It’s funny. It is a wonderful comedic platform to go on about how messed up everything is and how stupid all the managers are, and how no one gives a damn about the employees.
  • It’s cool. Being cynical and subversive is way more cool than being the boy scout, showing that you are aligned with the lame corporate way of doing business.
  • You look smart. If you can use a lot of details and data about why everything is screwed up, and dive into endless root-cause analysis, and catalog all the blame at a very granular level, some people will think you are really smart.
  • It’s easy. Being negative and generating lots of data and commentary absolves you of having to do any work to fix anything.

But, being negative is toxic. It doesn’t help.

Nothing moves forward or gets better. This type of negativity draws people in because it a source of energy, and camaraderie in the absence of positive leadership. It becomes the way things are. And then it defines the future.

What does it look like to be positive and to lead?

  • Acknowledge the bad. This is a really crappy time. I’m disappointed too. What do you think?.
  • Invite some discussion. Let people tell you how this is impacting them. But then close that discussion off and make it clear you are planning to go forward. Ask for their help.

You have my commitment and support to create a new plan of attack. We can’t keep doing things the same way because it is killing us, but we need to move forward. Let’s focus on one thing that we can do well and start doing it right now. Or, at a minimum, let’s focus on how we can build our career capital for the future.

Life is long

If you choose negative path, or if you choose to checkout, or broadcast how screwed up everything is, in reality it might not make a big difference in that moment. So what are you hurting? You are having some laughs.

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Sometimes there is no way practical way forward. Your organization could be being dismantled, outsourced or eliminated entirely. So who cares, right? What’s the big deal if I check out? It doesn’t matter anyway.

I have faced this many times at the helm of an organization that was being acquired or laid of: “it might not seem like anything we do matters right now because this is all going away.”

What you do now matters to YOU. Just remember that even though it might not matter in the current business situation, all of those people around you will eventually move on to other jobs in other places.

They will remember how you acted NOW. Will they remember someone taking cheap shots at everyone and everything and checking out, or will they remember someone who stepped up tried to find a way to help?

If you can’t help the business, help the people.

People need you to be positive and to lead. It is never the wrong choice.

If it’s too bad, get out

If it’s really bad, get out. But while you are on your way, it is still the right choice to be positive and help others — if for no other reason, because it’s better for you.

You can build a hugely positive reputation for leadership in tough times.

People are always watching. It always matters.

This article was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .