The second principle I want to focus on is maintaining a positive attitude. This concept applies for any leader, of any organization or team, in all situations. As an officer in the military, I learned how both positive and negative attitudes displayed by the leaders of a unit really do infect the rest of the unit. Negativity in a leader is contagious; it spreads like wildfire and can destroy morale. Conversely, positivity and optimism—not the unrealistic or boastful kind; rather, a direct and quiet form of confidence—can really spread and lift morale during difficult times. When I eventually became a platoon commander, I consistently tried to maintain a positive attitude, greeting everyone first thing in the morning, smiling, and trying not to give in to the temptation to complain about things. This form of positivity eventually becomes habitual and requires less effort to maintain. But it’s not easy. The times I feel I failed most as a leader were the times when I did succumb to the temptation to complain about the situation.
I learned about the power of positive thinking while going through the initial stages of mental and physical recovery from a traumatic injury sustained in combat in Afghanistan. I woke up from an approximately ten-day induced coma to find that both of my legs had been amputated above the knees, in addition to a host of complicated internal, less obvious injuries. Although the road to recovery was very long, and each day in the beginning was a challenge, I have no doubt that positive thinking helped get me to a place where habit began to take over. In the beginning, while in the ICU, I had setback after setback. Thoughts of progress, wrapped around goals that were at once short-term in nature but meanwhile flowed into bigger goals that I had, which included walking and running, not needing to use a wheelchair, evolved into a kind of positive focus that really supported me during difficult episodes in the hospital.
Positive thinking doesn’t come easy for everyone. Sometimes, the situation is too bleak. Some of us are naturally more “realistic” or cynically disposed. However, for those who struggle to find ways of maintaining a positive attitude, here is some food for thought. We all have a variety of sources of motivation, classed as either inside of or external to you. While in the hospital, I leaned on some of my internal goal-setting habits, as mentioned above, to develop and maintain a positive attitude. I also tapped into external sources: seeing friends and family who were visiting in the hospital, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years, was a refreshing and unique part of each day and this got me smiling. For those struggling with the internal sources of optimism, I encourage developing a breath practice in which gratitude is the focus. This is not easy, and requires a lot of work, but can progress towards a deep appreciation for what you have, and out of this can arise a calm sense of confidence in your ability to maintain a positive attitude in time of difficulty. And as a leader, realizing that the members of the team are looking to you for inspiration can be an amazing, powerful way to tap into external sources for maintaining a positive attitude.
When the going gets tough, the members of the team look to their team captain for steadfast optimism. This really can lift the morale of the team. And high morale is a very powerful force for persevering together through hardship.