A positive focus on the past is an indispensable leadership tool. As a leader, you have a major responsibility to give yourself and those you want to influence a positive orientation to the past so that you can learn from it, move faster in the present, and move farther towards the future you want to create.
In honoring the past for what it can teach, the leader sees a viable path forward. In extracting lessons from past failures, the leader reassures his or her followers that the same mistakes will not be repeated. By standing on the shoulders of past successes, the leader lifts the collective optimism of the team.
It is important to remember that the unwelcome, even disturbing, actions that must be taken for survival’s sake often present lessons. At the same time, the circumstances surrounding these actions usually offer rare opportunities to be captured and leveraged. The case study that follows is a perfect example of how an economic downturn led to both hard-won lessons and unanticipated gains.
In 2010, the DuPont Company was continuing its transformation into a market-driven science company. The stated DuPont Vision was “to be the world’s most dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer, and healthier life for people everywhere.” The company was also accelerating leadership development, launching a global leadership development program called the Leading Edge with the goal of cultivating resilient and inspirational key leaders.
DuPont’s key leaders had their work cut out for them. They were navigating through the aftermath of the global financial crisis, unsure market conditions, and tremendous change. They needed to inspire their organizations to outperform the competition while also delivering outstanding results in terms of innovation, productivity and company core values like safety.
As one of the faculty in the Leading Edge program, I worked with company leaders to show them how Asset-Based Thinking (ABT) could help them to be more resilient and inspiring. One of the first ABT resilience strategies I used was called, “How did we do that?”
I asked participants to recall what happened in late 2008 and 2009 during the global financial crisis, and to assess that time period simultaneously as the “best of times” and the “worst of times.” These were the themes that emerged:
It was the worst of times because…
- “We had to reduce staff.”
- “We had no idea where the economy was headed and how bad it could get.”
- “We had no playbook on how to climb out of it.”
- It was the best of times because …
- “We stayed true to our core values–no matter what!”
- “It was all about what was for the good of the whole.”
- “We cleaned up and addressed a number of things we never had time to before.”
- “We got to know our customers better.”
- “We built even more trust with our teams and with each other.”
- “We got creative.”
This ABT retrospective fortified in the minds of DuPont’s key leaders how they and their teams weathered past storms and capitalized on their troubles. I saw leaders in the room move from regret and sadness as they recalled their losses, to a real sense of pride as they remembered what they did to survive and even thrive in the face of tremendous past adversity. Their collective memories of what had been gained overshadowed the very real losses that they endured. They left the session heartened and encouraged about their ability to overcome the current economic storm.
We will take a deeper look at the ABT strategies offered to the Leading Edge program later on in the chapter. For now, I want you to acknowledge the amazing positive power of recalling times when you and your team were able to move forward in the midst of challenging circumstances. The past is truly a rich treasure trove of fortunate (and unfortunate) situations from which you can learn to lead more effectively.
During one session in Dupont’s Leading Edge leadership development program, Senior Vice President of Integrated Operations Gary Spitzer and I teamed up to tell the story of how Gary worked with his amazing team to gain community support for a new production facility in the United States. Gary and his team worked arduously to gain the support of reluctant elected officials and other important stakeholders. As Gary told the story, he highlighted a particular moment during the effort when he applied what he had learned in one of our ABT workshops.
Gary was scheduled to have what he anticipated to be a confrontational telephone conversation with an important stakeholder opposed to the project. Gary’s colleague, who already had a relationship with the stakeholder, was not available to sit in on the call and support him. Here is how Gary described his dilemma to the Leading Edge participants:
“I was nervous and unsure how I could have a purposeful call with someone who had opposed us so strongly. I also wished my colleague could have done it instead of leaving it to me! But, I also knew this was mine to take on, and I had to get myself in the right mindset to respectfully engage the other person.
“I thought back on my ABT training, and in particular, “Start by giving the person an A,” and “assume positive intentions.” I had to shift my perspective of the other person. I had to see where we had common and aligned interests. And the more I thought that through, it was the case.
“That small shift in perspective allowed me to approach the conversation in the most open, respectful and constructive way possible. And I am glad to say it was a successful call and important step on the path to finally gaining community support for the facility.”
I asked the audience of key leaders to comment on Gary’s attitude towards the other person and the inner strengths he drew upon to shift his perspective. They pointed out that Gary showed an attitude of determination and flexibility. Gary himself admitted that he knew he had to find some way of seeing something positive in the person’s character or he would have spoken with an unproductive tone and demeanor that surely would have been picked up on the other end of the line. Leveraging his ABT mindset, he was able to build trust and realize common ground with the key stakeholder.
This part of Gary’s story, the Self-focused angle, was highly instructive for the audience as well as for Gary. The session participants appreciated that Gary was willing to expose his more vulnerable side (“I was nervous,” “I felt alone,” and “I was dreading this call”). By letting them in on what he did to manage his mindset he became more relatable. Every time Gary told that self-revealing party of the story, his credibility as an executive grew. For Gary’s part, every time he told the story, his own capacity to “assume positive intentions” increased. Perhaps most importantly, Gary was able to more clearly see his leadership strong suit as a determined, yet flexible thinker. His Asset-Based Thinking focus on the past helped him see his competencies as a leader, which made him more likely to leverage them in future endeavors.
This article is excerpted from Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do by Dr. Kathy Cramer. Cramer is Managing Partner of The Cramer Institute.