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What can we do as leaders to inspire others?

Last week I facilitated a group of 140 leaders in New York to explore this question by drawing on the network research of Rob Cross of the University of Virginia. One thing Rob’s research demonstrates for sure — leaders who identify positive possibilities that engage the hearts and minds of others receive a myriad of benefits. These leaders attract top talent, create space for innovation to flourish and elicit extra effort and energy from their teams.

But . . . who among us engages others in positive possibilities each and every day? We have days when this lens comes easily – we are juiced about a project, had a good night’s sleep and feel relatively on top of our email. But then there are those other days . . .

So, how can we develop the resilience to lead more often from a positive frame?

I find the field of neuroscience, particularly as described by author Rick Hanson, provides actionable insights. From an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors survived because they paid attention to that which they feared. We are on the earth today because we descended from the anxious critters that constantly scanned the horizon for danger. The relaxed types who assumed the tiger was not in the bushes often paid the price by being the tiger’s lunch.

While few of us encounter four-legged tigers today, our brains remain wired to be on the alert – anxious and scanning for danger. Because neurons that “fire together wire together” – we tend to view our lives through the negativity bias of the brain – a lens that focuses on what might cause us harm or block our way.

How does this relate to finding positive possibilities to engage the hearts and minds of our team?

The negativity bias can make it hard to be positive and inspiring when a team member comes our way with a new problem.

The good news for leaders is that we can develop more resilience by using our minds to re-wire our brains. By paying more attention to our positive experiences, we begin to counter this negativity bias and re-wire brains to scan for the positive. Rick Hanson calls this intentional strengthening of particular neural pathways “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

One simple way to put this theory into action is to start a daily gratitude list. Write down five or so things you are grateful for every day. Make them different each day and as concrete and specific as possible.

I do this each morning on the note pad on my smart phone, going over the previous day in my mind as I drink my coffee; spending a bit of time re-connecting and extending the experiences that make me smile.

Give the gratitude list a try for a week and let me know what turns up.

Rick Hanson
Rob Cross

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