Didier caught the mood of the moment last week in one of those inspirational blogs to which only he has the secret: What makes populist leaders successful?
He suggested that the reason for the rise of people such as Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, Duterte and the success of Brexit is the extraordinary ability of populist leaders to inspire their followers. They do this by tapping into powerful negative emotions and getting their followers to bond together against a common enemy. The reaction they create is so high that a minority can seize power over a much larger number of people who are not inspired by their own leaders.
Didier’s observations – well backed up by research – are that Emotion (Pathos) is stronger than Logic (Logos); Bad is stronger than Good; and Bonding with similar people prevents Bridging to others. All these are as true in business as they are in politics.
To enable our positive vision to prevail against the naysayers, we as business leaders need to become smarter and find a different approach.
The challenges for many of you in senior positions in large, established organisations are immense:
- How do you change the culture of your organisation to embrace a positive vision and bridge naturally to others in the quest to create value?
- How did you and your senior colleagues align yourselves and your behaviour to set the right example (Ethos)?
- How do you inspire your organisation with the hope and desire to take you to greater heights (Pathos)?
In the words of Denis Diderot, the French Enlightenment philosopher: “Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things “.
Unfortunately, we don’t encounter a lot of passion in many places (or at least, not much that is related to the firm’s business objectives). Where start-ups abound in passion, established firms seem to have stifled it. Start-ups are filled with the boundless sense of the possible, the excitement of creation, the passion of innovation, the spirit of “the impossible we do at once, miracles take a little longer”. Change is constant. Established firms are more often constrained by limits and boundaries, by bureaucracy and control, by conservatism and the desire for stability. Change is hard.
To quote another 17th century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard: “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential. What wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility?”
Is there any way to recreate the spirit of a start-up in an established firm, as we discuss in another recent post? Is it possible to inspire people at all levels to commit their energy to great things? To see the opportunity in every situation?
The answer is yes. The approach is called Appreciative Inquiry. Putting it in practice is both exciting and highly rewarding. There’s a significant cost, however, which some leaders find too high: you must let go.
You must let go of your need to control everything and learn to give your followers their head.
You must let go of your need to criticise, and learn to praise instead.
You must stop problem-solving and learn to seek out and nurture what gives life.
You must stop judging people and give them your trust: they will astonish you.
I am reminded of the choice that Steve Jobs put to John Sculley to lure him to Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?”
Appreciative Inquiry holds within it the power to change the world. Barbara Fredrickson explains why in her influential Broaden and Build theory, first published in 2001. She demonstrates how negative emotions (anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, shame, despair) narrow our vision to just three options: fight, flight or reject. Positive emotions, on the other hand, (curiosity, hope, joy, desire, enthusiasm, love) broaden our vision to embrace a much wider range of options: play, create, explore, push the boundaries, go further, … Beyond the immediate benefits, such actions further build capability by increasing physical, social, intellectual and psychological resources.
What would be the performance of your organisation if it spent more time creating, exploring and pushing the boundaries and less time fighting, avoiding and rejecting?
The starting point is in your attitude as a leader. You are the most important factor in the climate of your team or organisation. Whichever emotions predominate in your people are determined by the questions you ask and your own emotions as you address day-to-day challenges.
Instead of asking, “what are the problems here, what are you doing to fix them?”, ask: “what is working well, and what can we do to get more of it?”
Instead of criticising someone for the 10% of their work that needs improvement, praise them for the 90% of their work that is good.
Instead of cancelling travel to save cost, invest in travel to build bridges.
We have been privileged to design and facilitate a number of quite large Appreciative Inquiry projects in many different forms and across several different industries. Each time, we marvelled anew at the positive energy released by the simple device of looking for the positives and sustaining what gives life. If you would like to explore the possibilities of using Appreciative Inquiry to transform your organisation, contact firstname.lastname@example.org