Kathy Cramer is a psychologist and leadership consultant who specializes in helping leaders and their teams make small shifts in thinking to produce large impacts. She is also the author of the new book “Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say & Do.” Cramer spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. What do you consider to be the top skills that create long-term success as a leader in government?
A. I think optimism and confidence are two assets that really help a leader go the distance. I also believe the ability to empathize and inspire are key. Lastly, when looking at a leader in a time of crisis, it is important for employees to see a high degree of resilience. This is proof that a leader can be proactive after a big setback.
Q. What's the concept of “lead positive”?
A. In the book, we’ve identified the chain reaction of see, say and do. The first component, see, is a leader’s ability to grab the spotlight of attention and then focus it on something worthwhile. Strong leaders look for possibilities more often than problems and, as a result, they have the ability to see the upside. The say piece is how leaders start the conversation around an action. And then the do is the ability to take action in order to leverage that upside. When what you see, say and do is aligned to capitalize on the possibilities, you are “leading positive.”
Q. Federal leaders are facing intense pressure to deliver results in an uncertain and tight fiscal environment. What techniques can they use to see the positive despite the challenges?
A. Leaders should acknowledge the obstacles, but then make it clear that the organization intends to prevail in spite of the challenges. Use your mission and cause to inspire people, and make them invest and support one another with a culture of can-do and sacrifice. People will feel proud of making a sacrifice if the end gain is worth it. You see that especially in the public sector. People in this sector are used to doing more with less, and there’s nothing like a setback to wake you up and make you more creative. I like to call it realistic optimism. When you put what you cannot control out of the picture, what you’re optimistic about is human ingenuity.
Q. How can individuals facing tough situations be realistically optimistic?
A. Although it may seem difficult, harnessing a setback and using it to propel you forward can be exceptionally rewarding. For instance, I helped the Air Force when they decided to downsize for the first time. Some of their employees had planned for a 20-year career that was now abruptly ending, so I joined forces with Family Support Center to work not only with the enlisted people but also with the families. It takes an amount of adaptation time to figure out what you’re going to create for the rest of your life, but if you’re in a structured process that helps you, chances are that the end result will be very successful.
Q. How do you define resilience?
A. I see resilience as when you’ve had a big setback, in the form of either a big moment or a small moment, and it causes you to hit the reset button. You’ve been stopped on your way to an important goal, and the goal is blocked and there is no way around it. Resilience is figuring out what new goal, what new aspirations you are going to tap into so that you can keep going. Resilience is also about being analytical and creative simultaneously. You have to analyze and ask yourself, “Is this setback really it?” I tend to think of continuing down the same path as determination. I think of resilience as “I’m really stopped, and I have to figure out a new way.”
Q. How can federal leaders more effectively communicate with their employees?
A. Leaders do not realize how important they are in driving the change. They have a ripple effect that they often underestimate. People follow people, not just great ideas. Leaders have to put themselves into the equation – you are as important if not more so than any other strategy. People need to look at you, hear from you, and they need to know how much they matter.
I like to tell people that substance is critically important. It’s your credibility card. You have to give people details about the substance — the details about how life and this organization will be different. The second element is the sizzle. You need to weave a story that has emotional value to your employees, whether it is an elevator speech or an hour town-hall meeting. The third element, soul, is the why: why you, the leader, care and why they, the audience, should care. It’s the leader’s skin in the game.