Being a Positive Leader by Mindfully Cultivating Your Mindset

January 10, 2011 / General /

By Schon Beechler

There are numerous techniques from the Positive Organizational Scholarship and Positive Psychology fields for how to generate energy in others but first we have to get honest with ourselves about what it is about our own mindsets that is draining our energy.  Being able to recognize our own mindsets, identify the fears and the thinking that rob us of our energy and our vitality, and devise strategies to work through or around our self-limiting beliefs, is a crucial step in providing the lift to help us soar. Only then can we be positive leaders and bring out the best in our people.

Finding and using positive energy is a major focus of my work and personal life. I coach and consult with executives who are beaten down by the 24/7 demands from their organizations, the negative physical impact of over-work, stress, and lack of physical exercise, as well as the mental pain brought on by the shame and guilt that they are not physically or mentally present for their partners or their kids.

There are numerous techniques that leaders can use to generate positive energy in others. But recently, as I have experimented with positive practices, both with myself and others, I’ve come to a brutal realization: We first have to get honest with ourselves about what’s draining our energy.  Only then can we be positive leaders and bring out the best in our people.

What Many Executives Think Drains Their Energy

When I ask executives what drains their energy they tell me that they have to work too many hours every week. They tell me that they have to respond to telephone calls and emails 24 x 7, even when they are on vacation. They tell me that their boss, their colleagues, their direct reports, their kids, all exhaust them with all their pathologies and demands. They report that they don’t get enough hours of sleep every night and even when they do get the sleep, it is fitful.

All of this is true — and all of it is destructive, not only to their effectiveness, but to leaders’ mental and physical well-being. And while all of this is true, much of this energy drain is not due to others but due to what leaders are doing to themselves. We have given up control over our own bodies, minds, and hearts to the organizations that employ us. This is not a sustainable practice and I coach my executives, as well as myself, to try to take back some control.

What’s Really Draining Energy?

So, let’s get be honest with ourselves. One of the biggest energy drains in our lives is fear – fear of losing our job, fear of not getting the next promotion, fear of not being good enough, fear of not getting enough power, prestige, or the love of a parent, fear of not being a good parent or partner, or fear of living a meaningless life.  I have been surprised in my work with very successful senior executives at how much fear they carry around with them and how it drains their energy, their leadership capacity, and the effectiveness of their teams. I naively thought that I was one of the only ones in the room, harboring deep-seated fears that I try my best to hide.

In my early career one of my biggest fears, and energy drains, was the fear of disappointing my father. One of the most difficult moments I faced during my 30s was telling my father that I was not going to get tenure at Columbia University. My father was so proud of me and all that I had accomplished – earning a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and getting a professorship at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. However, I was in my fifth year at Columbia and recently learned that I wasn’t going to be put up for tenure by my department. My dad was coming into town and I dreaded telling him this devastating news face to face. I just knew how disappointed he would be in me, and I was scared.

I could hardly bring myself to say the words to the man who, in my mind, had impossibly high standards and who loved me for all of my successes. Over sandwiches at a local restaurant, I broke the news to him, apologizing for failing, as tears streamed down my face. But the blessed man, with a tenderness I hardly recognized, just said, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. I just want you to be happy.” I wept even harder and in that moment, the fear that he would stop loving me if I failed disappeared. Gone, also, was the weight that I had been carrying around with me ever since I could remember.  Up until that moment, I saw myself as a victim of a judgmental parent who withheld love for performance. But I slowly came to realize that the real burden was something else – it was a deep fear that was inside of me that had nothing to do with the man sitting across the table from me.

Since that event over 15 years ago, I gently ask myself what is real and what is not. I try to pause in the middle of insisting that my current woes are this or that person’s fault, or a result of some or another unfortunate event, and first try to look at the situation from all angles. What’s really happening? Is my reaction justified or the result of an ingrained pattern of behavior that has outlived its usefulness? How much of the situation is in my control versus out of my control? I try, as much as I can, to calm the fears that arise from the past and look for the possibilities that might exist in the future. More often than not, this thinking leads me turn a desert of hopelessness and fear into a wellspring of sustaining energy.

Last month I had the opportunity to use my own experiences to help a remarkable young woman confront some fears of her own, as well as a second major energy drain she was suffering from – looking at life in an “either/or” way.  This young woman is a successful executive from Latin America. She is a “high flyer” in her organization and was wrestling with an offer from her company to take a very demanding international position. She had dedicated herself to career success over the last decade but was paralyzed by fear with this new offer. This prestigious opportunity had created a challenging dilemma: Should she take the job to keep advancing and find the success she had worked so hard to achieve or pursue what she really wanted in her heart — to have a rich personal life by finding a partner and having children.

When I met her, she believed that she would have to give up one for the other and that either choice would result in a great loss for her personally. She would either sacrifice all of the hard work that she had put in so far to be successful in her career or sacrifice her own happiness.  After our conversation, she realized for the first time that up until that moment she had been driven by fear – the fear that she would fail in business and therefore fail her friends and family; the fear that everything that she had sacrificed would go to waste if she followed her heart; the fear that she might not find the right partner and she would lose everything. And, in the midst of uncovering all of these fears, she realized that she wasn’t living her life according to her values and what she so desperately wanted for herself.

As she talked through the situation and as I asked her a number of questions, she slowly understood that the way she had framed the situation had been negative – it was about moving away from failure, away from her fears. She also began to see that there were many more possibilities she could explore that did not require the “yes/no” answer that she assumed she had to give to her boss. She began to devise a strategy of how she might enlist her boss, as well as other friends and colleagues around her, to help her be both successful at work and achieve the outcomes that she wanted in her heart. In that moment of mindset shift she released the knowingness and energy that she needed to confidently and purposefully pursue her true capacity. The tears of relief, of joy, and of gratitude for the possibilities before her flowed and as I hugged her, my tears of joy mixed with hers.

What’s Holding You Back?

So, what about you? What’s holding you back? What’s really suppressing your energy, the confidence and purposefulness to pursue your hopes and dreams, the things that your heart longs for? Is it really your job? Your boss and/or colleagues? Your family? Sure, there are constraints – there always are. But what is it about you – your fears and your way of looking at the world – that might be getting in your way? And how can you change your mindset to unleash the energy that you need to feel whole mentally and physically?

Energy-releasing Practices

Below are a few questions and a few practices that I have used to help myself and others find new energy when it seems there is none:

  • First, do the “energy audit” at The Energy Project website to see how you’re doing: http://www.theenergyproject.com/ Caveat: You have to be brutally honest with yourself in your answers.
  • Second, give yourself permission to spend some quality time with yourself.  Think about the things that are near and dear to you, your deepest values and do a little forward planning. What would bring you the most joy and satisfaction in the next month? The next 3 months? The next 6 months? What can you do to make it happen? How can you use the power of “and” to look at the situation, rather than looking at things in an “either/or” way?  Like the remarkable young female executive above, re-frame the dilemmas in your life: “How can I both be really successful at my career and build on all of the work that I have already dedicated to that success and have a wonderful, loving relationship with a partner and children?”
  • Third, look at your calendar. How are you spending your time? Have you made appointments every week to go to the gym? Spend time with your loved ones? For reflection and contemplation? To do the hobbies and activities that you love? If those appointments aren’t on your calendar, schedule them in for at least the next month. Then you will be mindfully aware of what you are giving up if you have to schedule something else in their place.
  • Finally, ask yourself what fears are holding you back and what you can do to either confront or overcome those fears. Make no mistake about it, this is a long-term discovery process and can be extremely hard to do. We all have deep wounds from our childhood. For example, I still carry around a fear of failure – despite my successes and knowing that my father will still love me if I fail. I recognize that this fear can be a great motivator and that it has helped me succeed many times in the past. And, at the same time, I know that this fear holds me back from taking on challenges and pursuing opportunities that would help me live my values and gain greater satisfaction and joy in life.

I’ve tried, but I can’t get rid of my fear – it grips me in the pit of my stomach to matter what my mind is saying to itself. So what I do is I just stop and notice the fear.  I say (to myself), “There’s that fear of failure thing” gripping my gut and causing me to dismiss this opportunity as too risky.”  And then I ask myself,  “Ok, what’s the worst that could happen? What could you do to make sure that you don’t fail? Are there resources and avenues open that could make you feel comfortable enough to go for it? And is this important enough that the risk you have to take is worth it – no matter what?” Then I hold my breath and jump…..

Leadership and Your Mindset

Many writers focus on what great leaders do and for many years, I was convinced that leadership was defined by a leader’s behavior. Then, as I read more leadership research and worked with more leaders across a variety of sectors and countries, I realized that leadership is not only about what leaders do, but who they are as people – and I continue to believe that is true. At the same time, as I have continued to explore the nature of leadership, I’ve come to realize that in the world we live in, mindset is perhaps the most important leadership attribute of all. Being able to recognize our own mindsets, identify the fears and the thinking that rob us of our energy and our vitality, and devise strategies to work through or around our self-limiting beliefs, is a crucial step in providing the lift to help us soar.

Note: For some helpful resources, tips and research on energy, see “The Energy Project” website at http://www.theenergyproject.com/