Jan Mühlfeit - Unlock Potential Now

New book The Positive Leader

The importance of strong leadership has never been more apparent. As events in Europe unfold dramatically in the wake of the British public’s vote to exit the European Union, we find ourselves looking to our leaders—and potential leaders—to guide us through this period of uncertainty and change.

An inspirational leader can rouse confidence in times of ambiguity like these, and instil a sense of optimism for the future that might otherwise be missing. But with political leaders dropping like flies and other individuals clamouring to take their place, a number of key questions are brought to the fore. What makes for successful leadership under challenging circumstances? How can we identify a strong, visionary leader? And to what extent does great leadership inspire engagement and success in others over the long term?

These questions are becoming more significant than ever in a perpetually-changing world, and not just in politics. We’re all operating amidst a backdrop of supersonic developments in technology that are bringing dynamic innovations to every aspect of our lives and business. As corporations race to meet new demands and opportunities for growth, time-starved CEOS and managers face all manner of complications. Not least is dealing with an employee engagement crisis in which a staggering 87% of the worldwide population is not engaged at work. Through my time spent coaching clients and revisiting my own personal leadership experiences at Microsoft, I’ve uncovered four key ways that leaders frequently go off beam, both in how they manage themselves and manage their teams:

Where leaders go wrong
1. They target weaknesses, not strengths. Misguided leaders waste vital time, money and energy grappling with faults and failures rather than recognising and leveraging people’s natural talents. The result? Disengaged and dissatisfied teams.

2. They fail to ‘have a dream’. A leader lacking a clear, inspirational purpose or vision will have a tough time rallying people in a unified direction. Accomplished employees don’t just want any old job; they want meaning and the chance to contribute to something bigger than themselves. 

3. They manage time, not energy. Facing non-stop demands in the workplace, leaders cram their diaries to the brim believing that they’re skilfully maximising their time. Instead, they’re recklessly abusing their energy, diluting their focus and heading straight for a burnout. 

4. They put success before happiness. When leaders set their sights only on the material trappings and tangible accomplishments of life, such as money or metrics, they ignore the deeper connections and meaningful activities that produce long-lasting success and happiness. 

It was with these errors in mind that I sought to develop a new approach to leadership, one that answers the plight of frustrated leaders looking for a more positive way to navigate the cut and thrust of the business world. Grounded in positive psychology, the 4Ps of Positive Leadership model is my contribution to the leadership field, providing a workable system for any kind of leader and organisation:

The 4Ps of Positive Leadership
1. Positive People (The ‘Who’) - Discover and work to your strengths.
2. Positive Purpose (The ‘Why’) - Identify your mission and vision.
3. Positive Process (The ‘How’) - Manage energy, not time (become a ‘Chief Energy Officer’).
4. Positive Place (The ‘Where’) - Lead yourself to happiness, and success will follow.

You might notice one particular type of P missing from this list—that’s right, Performance. That’s because performance isn’t a cause of successful leadership, but rather an end result. By championing a more positive and authentic approach, you open yourself and others up to greater happiness. And once you’ve achieved that happier state? You guessed it—outstanding performance is quick to follow. Positive psychology research has proven that the ‘happiness breeds success’ edict isn’t hocus-pocus, but actual fact. It’s time we treated it as a real and significant principle of leadership best practice. A closer look at the 4Ps can show you whether you’re on the right track in your leadership.

POSITIVE PEOPLE: Building Strengths

One of the most worrisome aspects in the modern workplace is our obsession with ‘fixing weaknesses’. Not too great at giving presentations? Then you need to spend more time practising. Are your budgeting skills under par? Well go on a course and keep working at it. Leaders will spend whopping amounts of energy and untold hours trying to address the legion of discernible flaws in themselves, their teams and their organisations. The problem with this approach is that it causes us to overlook the things that actually make us great: our strengths. It’s by playing to our strengths that we produce our best work and make our weaknesses irrelevant. Not too sure what your strengths are? There are lots of ways to find out. A good starting point is to use a survey method such as StrengthsFinder 2.0, Via Survey or Realise2.

Remember that leadership isn’t just about you; it’s also about the people you depend on to do your job effectively—your team. Make sure you have a balanced team who bring a variety of complementary strengths to the table, and that each individual is filling a role that utilises their unique talents. This not only makes your job easier, but also generates confidence in your followers and increases engagement with their tasks.

POSITIVE PURPOSE: Personal Mission & Ultimate Vision

We all have a responsibility to ourselves to find a job, career or lifestyle that we love; something that gives us a sense of purpose—a ‘why’ for doing things. This is our personal mission. We all have one. Make it your priority to find your personal mission so you can enjoy greater moments of ‘flow’ and drive positive change in the right direction. Ask yourself: What are your strengths? Your values? Your passions?

But as a leader, it’s not enough to simply be aware of your purpose. By being visionary and creating a picture of what the future could be, you have the power to inspire others just as much as you inspire yourself. Getting the people around you on board with a clear vision—inspiring them to share a bigger purpose—gives you and your team a high platform from which to achieve more than you imagined possible. Surprising as it sounds, the need to make a meaningful contribution is fast overtaking money as the most powerful driver for performance. So instead of relying on bonuses, why not try helping your team unlock more of their potential in the workplace?

POSITIVE PROCESS: Energy Management

Being ‘busy-busy’ is such a feature of modern life that no business leader can say they aren’t feeling the strain. Faced with relentless demands in the workplace, we try to take control of our time through typical time management methods—using day planners and to-do lists, setting up reminders on our smartphones—driven by the idea that the more we can squeeze into our day, the more productive (and hopefully the less stressed!) we will be. However, the key to avoiding burnout is not how we manage time; it’s how we manage energy. Unlike time, which is strictly limited to 24 hours per day for everyone, personal energy is renewable.

Today’s businesses need leadership that recognises the value of ‘strategic renewal’. Throughout the day, our bodies follow a cycle where they are at their peak energy levels for 90–120 minutes, after which they hit a trough for about 20–30 minutes (these are called ultradian rhythms). During our low periods, we feel tired, irritable and groggy, and we lose focus. By resting at these times, we can revitalise ourselves and refuel our energy ‘tank’ for those key moments when we need to work on our most challenging, high-grade tasks.

POSITIVE PLACE: Success vs Happiness

Leaders are lost. In spite of their achievements and material wealth, many top-level leaders are mindlessly running the rat race—dashing headlong towards the next goal, the next gain, the next bonus—without finding happiness within their day-to-day existence. They’re relying on success to make them happy, but their focus is in the wrong place. Happiness is not one final point or moment in time. I define it as the overall pleasure you experience while on the path to unlocking your potential.

So how do you get on the happiness path? By pursuing your personal mission instead of the rat race. Set goals that engage your strengths, connect with your values and do what you love to do, as well as what you have to do. Get this right and instead of simply looking forward to achieving your goals, you’ll actually enjoy the sense of direction and meaning that they bring to your everyday life.

For more information on the 4Ps of Positive Leadership, pick up a copy of The Positive Leader, by Jan Mühlfeit and Melina Costi. Published by Pearson, Financial Times Publishing (Autumn 2016).

Jan Mühlfeit