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How Do Leaders Summon Positive Influence That May Not Come Naturally?

If you’ve read the book, A Man Called Ove, or seen the movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks about a grumpy character named Otto, you know that he has bleak view of life…and his neighbors. When a young family moves in nearby, Otto’s stubborn veneer slowly starts to crack when the family wedges their way into his life with tough love and transforms his worldview.

There are plenty of Ottos in the world, and some of us channel Otto on any given day. Whether we’re dealing with chronic mental health issues or a temporary lapse in motivation, it’s perfectly natural to wake up and feel as if you’re the last person who should be the bright spot in everyone’s day.

When the world is calling on you to be a positive leader, how do you summon positivity if it doesn’t come naturally to you? It’s a fair question. If you’re familiar with Arthur Brooks and his bestseller From Strength to Strength, he explores embracing change and finding happiness as you progress through your career. He addresses the very real existential questions we ask ourselves about purpose and fulfillment as our careers ebb and flow.

Unfortunately, earning a title doesn’t wave a magic leadership or positivity wand. Just because our careers often culminate to leading people, we don’t have all the answers and we aren’t this constant rock at the center of our company culture. We have doubts about our abilities. We have fears about being wrong, being viewed as incompetent, or our ability to inspire.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner talk about these competencies in a recent webinar about the release of the seventh edition of their longstanding bestseller The Leadership Challenge. Kouzes explains that the characteristics, values, and traits of the people we’d be willing to follow hasn’t changed much over the forty years that they’ve been collecting data.

The top four characteristics have remained the same: honesty, competency, inspiring, and forward-looking. Closely following these traits were supportiveness and dependability. Kouzes says a common question leaders ask themselves is, “How do I communicate to others a sense of enthusiasm and spirit, even in these tough times?” If you’re asking this question too, the important takeaway is that you’re not alone.

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I was struck by a tweet that Brooks posted recently: “Instead of despairing of the absurdity of life, I lean into it, laugh at it, and start my day in a light mood. Then I gather my beloved boulders and set out to the nearest hill.” His reference, of course, is to Greek mythology and Sisyphus, who was known for his ingenuity but also for being condemned to the underworld where he had to roll a huge boulder up a hill. When he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom, and he would start over again…for eternity.

If you unpack this tweet, you discover that Brooks has a broader answer to summoning positivity when it may not always come naturally. Here is one of his strategies that has worked for me: focus on what you can control. Brooks says to take joy in the small things rather than letting yourself be overwhelmed by what’s out of your control, such as war, natural disasters, hatred, etc.

I agree; I’m a fierce believer in looking for the small moments we can appreciate but also creating those small moments by sharing gratitude and communicating it with others. If you think about it, these small moments are really the point of an arrow that’s attached to a much greater direction and purpose. For instance, if you thank someone for the way they handled something or the job they’ve done, you’re recognizing their contribution to a shared goal that typically has more meaning.

Another way that I like to focus on what I can control is by intentionally meditating on content that positively affects my mood every morning. By mulling over a passage from a book I’m reading, pondering scripture that inspires me, or adding to my list of favorite quotes from others who might have experienced similar obstacles, I’m filling my mind with positive input. When I occupy my brain with the positive, there’s not much left for the negative.

Leadership development is really about human development, and being courageous about positivity for others often means rebelling against our own demons—whether those are chronic or temporary. Know that you’re not alone if positivity isn’t oozing from every pore on most mornings. Sometimes we have to channel Sisyphus to overcome our Otto. The great news is that it’s possible.


  1. Steve South

    Your writings are so consistent and relevant. Great illustrations and references. Thanks for working hard to use your gift of communicating truth.

    Reply to Steve South

  2. J Thomas Mercer

    Walt, thank you. I am so impressed with your weekly writings. They’re outstanding!

    Reply to J Thomas Mercer

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