Who is the best leader you have ever known?
As you remember the person, see if you are connecting the person with the help they provided. Was there a particular problem they solved? Nearly every time I reflect on leaders I admire, the images that pop into my mind relate to how they facilitated movement from a significant problem to a helpful solution. The words they spoke—their actions. I recognize how they connected, inspired, and mobilized others to deliver a better future.
Heroes are humans. The great leaders I admire did not possess special powers that allowed them to succeed. After two decades of work with leaders, I have connected the research with real people. We all face temptations. Negative thinking is one of the most prevalent temptations. When you understand the three ways negative thoughts derail your leadership and problem-solving, you are better prepared to move problems toward solutions.
Negative Thoughts create drift. Negative thoughts steer your focus and energy away from a solution and toward anxiety-producing rumination. Problem-solving elevates. It creates a lift for you and your team. Negative thoughts perpetuate a downward spiral. As you descend, the distance between problems and solutions increases. Your vision fades, and your energy wanes. Negative thoughts distort your perspective. Problems get bigger, and your leadership gets smaller. While you’re stuck in the spiral, the problem keeps growing.
When I was in high school, our head football coach was in a terrible car accident. He suffered multiple injuries and faced a long recovery. He was told that he would not be able to walk. I vividly remember Coach Emory walking across the gym floor while sharing the details of his accident with my class. It was my senior year in high school. Forty years later, I have a much greater appreciation for his willingness to share. He was giving us lessons that we didn’t know we needed. His gait was a little stiff, and every step required great effort. With a remarkable determination, he paced back and forth while he spoke to us. He possessed what I would describe as an old-school demeanor with a booming voice. He had my full attention. I have remembered one thing he said that day above everything else. “Can’t never does anything.”
Leadership is never separated from context. Problems provide opportunities. The drift from “can” to “can’t” feeds on negative thoughts. When we feed negative thoughts, we will succumb to the spiral. Few of us will have to learn to walk again this week. But we will all face the temptation to drift toward negativity. We can starve the drift. The shift from “can’t” to “can” is the first step toward better problem-solving.
When it comes to problem-solving, multiplication is better than division. Negative thoughts divide and diminish teamwork. The research conducted by Kotter, Akhtar, and Gupta reveals that leaders and organizations are encountering a significant gap between what is needed to respond to complexity and the needs that are emerging in a rapidly evolving twenty-first-century world. The gap is growing between the need to solve problems and the capacity of existing organizational approaches toward problem-solving. What is the best way to close the gap? Businesses, schools, and communities need more problem solvers working together. The way forward requires “more leadership from more people.”
Problem-solving improves via leadership multiplication. Negative thoughts divide. Negativity halts leadership multiplication. Negativity produces less leadership and less problem-solving rather than more. In the very moments when collaboration and cohesion could fuel innovation, negative thoughts create silos. Fragmentation in the face of significant opportunities is a costly byproduct. The best leaders choose thoughts that produce multiplication rather than division. Problem solvers are not defined by position. It’s past time to break out of the old model of leadership that divides and diminishes.
The third way negative thoughts hinder problem-solving is the most serious and the most personal of all. It’s Denial. Unbridled negative thinking infects your self-belief. It becomes a rejection of your value and your ability to contribute. Negative thoughts leave you stuck as if there is no way forward.
Have you ever felt trapped in an annoying or toxic conversation? Think about a recent conversation that was particularly frustrating. Did you pretend to be present while your mind was somewhere else? Did you engage in a fruitless argument? Did you walk away?
Imagine that experience every day. Again and again. What are the most toxic conversations you have with yourself? How often do they repeat? The repetitive nature of negative thoughts is insidious. Mostly, negative thoughts repeat a message of denial. Your internal critic denies the possibility that you can make a unique contribution to the world around you. When you recognize the message for what it is, it’s time to walk away.