Three Ways to Unleash Positive Energy in Trying Times

The last three years have demanded so much of us as leaders. Fast Company cofounder and best-selling author Bill Taylor explains how to rally your colleagues around a positive agenda for change.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired—exhausted, really.

The last three years have demanded so much of us as leaders, colleagues, family members, and citizens. It’s not just the pandemic and public health, inflation and economic turbulence, elections and social divisions. It’s also, when it comes to our responsibilities as executives and entrepreneurs, the demand to simultaneously perform and transform—to deliver stellar results for today, even as we invent all-new strategies and practices for tomorrow.

So as we face the future, we need lots of creative ideas, new models of work, richer definitions of success. But above all, we need some bursts of energy and inspiration—ways to unleash exciting experiments, rally our colleagues around change, and bring out the best in everyone around us.

This short essay offers three strategies to unleash positive energy inside your organization, among your colleagues, and within yourself.

The first strategy is to develop new ideas about where to find new ideas—in particular, to embrace the value of learning from outside your industry. One reason the last three years have felt so exhausting is that we are being asked to solve problems we haven’t seen before, to serve customers in ways we haven’t served them before, to deal with emotions we haven’t experienced before.

But that does not mean we have to innovate from scratch. Indeed, the fastest way to get to the future is to learn from experts who do similar work to you, but in unrelated fields. I’ve seen it time and again. A hospital that got better at operating-room “handoffs” by studying a Formula One pit crew. A big-city police chief who had his detectives observe surgeons to see how they cracked their toughest medical cases.

Sometimes the best source of new ideas for one industry are ideas that are already working in another, unrelated industry.

There’s a second way to unleash positive energy for change, and it is almost the inverse of the strategy I just described. Instead of looking outside your organization, look inside your organization, but look at your colleagues differently from how you have seen them before.

All too often, leaders and organizations overlook skills and experiences that don’t conform to official job descriptions or traditional business relationships, and thus miss out on the talents of people who would be eager to share what they know, if only they were asked. Most companies are staffed and surrounded by employees, customers, and suppliers who are passionate about what the company does, bursting with ideas, and eager to be more involved. Why not invite them to express their creativity to help you solve problems and drive change?

For example, a major art museum authorized its security guards to curate an exhibit of their favorite paintings and sculptures, and their choices dazzled. A renowned shoe-designer invited customers to submit sketches of their dream shoes, and their models were huge hits.

I will end this essay with a third piece of advice—not so much a strategy as an attitude. The late Stanford professor John Gardner, who celebrated the power of what he called “tough-minded optimists,” famously wrote that, “The future is rarely shaped by people who don’t believe in the future. It is created by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much and believe very much.”

In other words, the most important thing you as a leader can do to unleash positive energy in others is to unleash a spirit of “tough-minded optimism” in yourself.

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