This is my summary and analysis of an article written by Bill Taylor that appeared in Harvard Business Review, March 03, 2016.
This article begins by Taylor conceding that ‘even for leaders committed to building a more prosperous future for their organizations, it’s easy to surrender to pessimism.’ Uncertainty around financial markets and the personal and negative nature of the presidential campaign are two factors stated to be contributing to the ‘sense of anxiety that has taken over society.’
Taylor had just finished a book about companies ‘in pretty ordinary settings’ that are ‘doing extraordinary things’ and was struck by the fierce sense of optimism that guides their leaders and energizes their members, despite an increasingly bleak future outlook. This is not just hoping for the best or assuming that everything will be all right but what leadership scholar and civic reformer, John Gardner called ‘tough-minded optimism – a blend of original ideas, deep convictions, and resilience in the face of change.’
Garner found that the best leaders have a variety of skills and techniques but observed that there is no substitute ‘for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation’ created by enthusiastic people that want and believe in something very much.
Taylor found that the leaders he studied had compelling answers to four questions that he hopes will make readers more optimistic and motivated in face of those that are less positive. An analysis of the questions and Taylor’s observations in relation to these questions follows. It must be noted that it seems Taylor studied corporate leaders and not educational leaders.
Do you have a definition of success for your business that allows you to stand for something special and that inspires others to stand with you?
Taylor writes that the most successful companies don’t just sell products but they stand for important ideas that shape the future of their fields and reshape what is possible. I think that this is true of schools. I believe that schools with a common purpose and shared vision that points to a better future are more effective than those that do not. They provide something to rally around and aspire to – even in difficult times.
Do you and your colleagues work as distinctively as you compete?
Taylor writes successful leaders care more than everyone else about customers and colleagues and this emotional connection creates positive energy even in negative environments. As a teacher, I was always taught and quick to learn that developing positive relationships with students is the most important factor in their academic and social development. In my first year in an administrative position, the importance of developing positive relationships and ensuring that those that I serve know I care about them continues to hold true.
Are you as consistent as you are creative?
According to Taylor, one reason people get pessimistic is that the organization they work for can’t stop changing. I think this is an excellent observation in the context of education, where some schools lurch from one program or ‘fad’ to the next in the absence of a common purpose or shared vision which ensures that priorities are consistent in good times and bad. Change is inevitable but inconsistency leads to mediocrity.
Have you figured out how your company’s history can help to shape its future?
According to Taylor, ‘most optimistic leaders don’t disavow what’s come before.’ Instead they use it to figure out what needs to be done. It can create the confidence to face the future. I think this is an important part of being an optimistic leader – being able to look at what is already in place and the work it took to do this and see how it can be built upon to create a better future.