How to Harness Positivity to Become a Better Leader

You don’t need to be ruthless to be an effective leader.

Courtesy of ntkris / Shutterstock
Courtesy of ntkris / Shutterstock

How does one go about developing a positive character? There are several habits that I’ve found useful in maintaining a positive frame of mind and giving off positive emotions, even in the toughest of circumstances.

Grateful Practice

In particularly stressful times, it can be difficult to look on the bright side. Negative thoughts can feel real and immediate, while happier ones lose their potency when frustration takes over. Sometimes the pressure can be too overwhelming to sustain hopefulness. Keeping a positive outlook in these moments requires practice. And the way many people practice is by keeping a gratitude journal.

As we tell our boys, you’ve got to be great — but you’ve also got to be grateful. Every Sunday night we write down in our book three things for which we are individually grateful. I know this is not an earth‑shattering idea. And I’m not the kind of guy who loves shouting out my “intentions” in a yoga class. But this practice has made a world of difference for me and my family. It resets you and gets you prepped for the week ahead. Ask people who practice this exercise and they will all tell you how effective it is. The conventional wisdom is to make it part of your daily morning ritual. Yours might be every Monday and Friday on your lunch break. But for me, once a week with the family is the perfect routine.

The things you write down can be big‑ticket items like your good health, or landing a job, or just the fact that you’re alive  and kicking. But they can also be little things, like something nice our coworker said to you in the coffee room. What’s helpful about writing these reflections in a notebook is that you can consult previous entries and jog your memory on truly trying days. It helps you go back and tap into those feelings when you seem lost and hopeless.

This is an exercise that takes less than ten minutes, and yet the effects can be dramatic. Keeping thoughts of gratitude on  the surface of your mental life can help you realize that whatever might be going wrong today, on balance you’ve got a ton to be positive about.

Criticize Constructively

It’s an unavoidable fact of life that sometimes we need to criticize others, particularly in our professional lives. But there’s a difference between constructive criticism that is positive and disparaging criticism that is laced with hostility or dismissiveness. If a criticism is worth making, there’s usually a way to frame it positively.

Instead of “You got this fact wrong in the report,” you can say, “This report is almost there, but can you double‑check this fact? It doesn’t seem quite right to me.” Instead of “Your idea doesn’t make sense,” you can ask, “I don’t get it — can you help me to understand it better?” This last one is something I use all the time. It puts the emphasis on me, not on the idea, and it also forces the person to articulate the concept in its simplest form. Most of all, make sure the aim of any criticism is to help the other person improve — and that the link between your comment and that person’s goals is made explicit. For instance, if a person takes too long to complete assignments, don’t tell him to pick up the pace. Explain that he’ll be able to take on bigger, more challenging, and more satisfying projects if he can work faster. You need to lead by example, no matter your position. And nobody needs more toxicity in their life. Don’t contribute to it.

Overtly hostile or negative criticisms can also end up backfiring on you thanks to a phenomenon psychologists call spontaneous trait transference. This is when a person who attributes certain characteristics to someone else is perceived as having those exact traits. When you call someone disloyal, for instance, it’s possible for people to view you as disloyal. The same goes for dishonesty, laziness, lack of imagination — you name it. This can happen even if the people you’re speaking to know you pretty well. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “even familiar communicators became associated with, and attributed, the traits implied by their remarks.”5 Someone who sticks to simple, positive, and constructive criticisms, on the other hand, can end up using spontaneous trait transference to their advantage, and coming off as more positive as a result.

Bad Can Turn Great

Meetings can be a drag. Some are truly fun and stimulating, but others are so painful you’re amazed they aren’t banned by the Geneva Conventions. Such meetings used to be the bane of my existence. These days, however, I see them as an opportunity to inject a little positivity where it is sorely needed.

I do this by going in with an open mind and bringing energy to the table. But most of all, I do it by reminding myself that every meeting could potentially turn into something great. This is the truth. You might be meeting with a low‑level accountant, the HR professional in charge of health insurance, or an unpaid intern and hear something new or interesting that eventually leads to an amazing breakthrough. Usually this doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. And recognizing that this possibility exists is a great way to bring some positivity, optimism, and energy to an otherwise mundane situation.

I first met my Mekanism business partners, Tommy Means, Pete Caban, and Ian Kovalik, because Tommy called me by accident. He was patched through to me via a production company that I started, called Plan C. Tommy was calling a local San Francisco agency, trying to drum up some work for himself. When I got the call by mistake, I could have easily told him he had the wrong number and transferred him back to the receptionist. Instead, I treated this chance encounter as a potential opportunity. Turns out it was.

That incorrectly placed phone call led to a lifelong partnership. Instead of me being annoyed and dismissing Tommy, we engaged each other in conversation. And we haven’t stopped talking since. An open mind on both sides allowed this happenstance to occur.

This kind of serendipity doesn’t strike very often. But because I know that any chance encounter can turn into something life‑changing, I make sure I bring my full positive energy to even the most trivial interaction. As Frank Zappa famously said, “A mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work if it isn’t open.”

You Might Be Wrong

Part of maintaining an open mind is recognizing that on any given issue there’s a chance you might be wrong. If I’m going into a meeting at work or having a discussion with my wife about an issue, I usually have an opinion at the outset. But people who go into conversations with an ironclad agenda don’t convey positivity, instead they come off as adversarial. Trust me, I used to do this a lot — coming in hot to a meeting and looking to pick a fight.

One way to avoid this attitude is to go into every interaction willing to change your mind if someone comes to you with a better idea. If you’re a high‑ranking manager at your job and an entry‑level employee has a suggestion that conflicts with your views, give them every opportunity to turn you around. Similarly, if your boss wants to take a course of action that goes against your assessment, assume that he or she knows something you don’t, and try to assess the situation from that person’s point of view.

You won’t always be convinced. But your willingness to give the other person a fair hearing will be evident — and appreciated. Just as important, this kind of disposition will make you naturally more persuasive.

Get Excited

As Schachter and Singer’s adrenaline study showed, there’s a fine line between a negative emotion like anger and a positive emotion like euphoria. The same can be said about two other feelings, anxiety and excitement.

Major events, whether personal or professional, can bring about a lot of anxiety. Think about the day before a big business meeting or job interview, presenting something in front of your class, or that moment right before you step onstage to give a toast before hundreds of people. In situations like that, it’s common for people to tell you to “calm down” or “relax.” But that’s terrible advice. You can’t turn off anxiety by sheer force of will. A better approach is to reframe that feeling as excitement — a sensation that, when you think about it, isn’t so far off from nervousness.

A 2013 study by Harvard Business School researcher Alison Wood Brooks found that this technique can be amazingly effective at calming pre‑performance jitters.6 In that experiment, Brooks asked participants to sing a song using the Nintendo Wii video game Karaoke Revolution: “Glee” (who knows,  maybe it’s a favorite among experimental psychologists). Karaoke contestants were required to belt out the Journey classic “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and they were told that they would be judged based on how accurately they sang the lyrics.

Before this happened, though, the participants were asked how they felt and were required to respond with a randomly assigned answer: either “I am anxious” or “I am excited.” They were also told that whichever of these answers they were assigned, they should do their best to believe it was true. In other words, people who were assigned “I am anxious” tried to interpret their feelings as anxiety, whereas the others tried to feel that they were excited. After that, they let rip with “Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world.”

Crazy as it sounds, the participants who told themselves “I am excited” were consistently better at sticking to the lyrics. These individuals were able to interpret their heightened emotional state as positive instead of negative simply by talking to themselves ahead of time — and they performed better as a result. This sort of emotional reappraisal isn’t always possible, of course. If you’re nervously awaiting the results of a medical test or rushing to catch an international flight, what you’re feeling is anxiety, not excitement, and telling yourself anything different isn’t going to do much good.

When our team at Mekanism is preparing for a big pitch, I make sure to give off excitement at the prospect of landing an awesome account — not anxiety about whether the potential client will like us, what our competition has in store, or how hard the work will be. The same is true when we’re working around the clock to meet a deadline for a big campaign. It’s an exhausting, high‑pressure time. But it’s also exhilarating. So rather than focus on how tired and strung out we are, I always try to emphasize how much of a rush it all is, and that we are in it together.

I could attempt to motivate the team by reminding  them how much is at stake (like LBJ with the “Daisy” ad) or how disastrous it would be if we fell short. But honestly, it isn’t as effective. Instead of emphasizing how stressful the situation is, we frame these scenarios as exciting opportunities — just as Biden did back in the Roosevelt Room.


Maintaining a generally positive disposition carries a wide range of benefits that, taken together, can make you far more persuasive. People who are habitually positive — who reliably base their thoughts, beliefs, comments, and actions on their positive emotions — are the kind of individuals you want to have around. Their positivity can be infectious, rubbing off on you and making it easier for you to focus on the more uplifting aspects of your own life. They are more likable and more soulful, and as a result, we feel compelled to take their side whenever possible.

But it takes practice and discipline for it to become second nature.

The main tenets are:

  1. Be grateful.
  2. Criticize constructively.
  3. Bad can turn great.
  4. You might be wrong.
  5. Get excited.

Internalizing these helps ensure that you bring a constructive, optimistic, engaging demeanor to all of your interactions.

Remember, people surround themselves with people who reflect who they want to be and how they want to feel. Positivity breeds influence.

Excerpted from The Soulful Art of Persuasion: The 11 Habits That Will Make Anyone a Master Influencer. Copyright © 2019 by Jason Harris. Published by Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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