The Key to Leading in a Negative Environment


Would you mind writing an article about how to thrive as a leader amidst tides of negativity?” This is a question I received a few weeks ago in my LinkedIn inbox. I hope this post adds value to the person that asked me to share my thoughts on this issue and others that may be in the same situation. I get some form of this question almost weekly from someone.

My reply may not be what you expect. Most often, people that ask this question are searching for practices, but they should be searching for principles.

Practices apply in certain situations. Principles apply in all situation.

For more than 10 years, I have thrived as a leader among a sea of negativity. I’m often sought after for cultural transformation and to professionally lead teams through challenging processes. I usually know nothing or very little about what the teams are actually doing or planning to do. What I do know is how to motivate and inspire people to achieve great results. I recently calculated that I have spent over 11,000 hours leading cross-functional teams through change. Change that most didn’t ask for and most didn’t want. Teams that often didn’t know each other or me. Teams that were often made up of some very negative people.

When a leader is challenged to lead (influence) in a negative environment, they have three options:

  1. Step up. To do so, you must have already made a large investment in personal character development. You must also be the top leader or have leaders above you with the ability to lead at or above your level. If you and your leaders, if applicable, have paid the price, you will be able to effectively deal with any negativity you encounter. Either by changing the people through growth and development or by changing the people through removal and replacement. The leaders that are able to step up never ask me the question that started off this lesson. Why? They already know the answer. If you can’t improve the team and/or your environment, you’re not leading. You’re being led.
  2. Step aside. This is typically what happens when a leader hasn’t done the character work that will allow him/her to lead among a sea of negativity but wants to remain with the team because they don’t have other options. The leader simply steps aside willingly or is pushed aside unwillingly when the real leader, the person with the most influence regardless of rank or title, begins to lead the team. Understand, this influence can be positive or negative. Often, the person with the most influence is negative which influences those around them to also choose to be negative.
  3. Step out. This is typically what happens when a leader has done the character work to lead in a negative environment but has a leader above them that has not. When this happens, the leadership above is undermining the leadership below. High level character development means you have the courage to do whatever it takes to make any situation better. In this case, you can’t make the current environment better because of poor leadership above. However, because of your personal growth and development you have created options and have the courage to act on those options. The result: you change your environment by changing your environment. In other words, you join a new team that doesn’t attract or allow negative team members to contaminate the team.

Strong leaders step up. They are ready. They are positive. They have strong character. They are in a position to make it happen and do make it happen.

Weak leaders step aside. They are not ready. They are negative. They have weak character and blame others for their inability to cope with reality. They are in a position to make it happen but cannot.

Trapped leaders step out. They are ready. They are positive. They have strong character. They are not in a position to make it happen, but they want to make it happen. So, they find a place where they can.

The answer to the question: “How do I thrive as a leader amidst tides of negativity?”

The key to dealing with negativity at any level is character development at your level.

To thrive as a leader in a sea of negativity, you must either step up or step out. The answer to how you thrive in a sea of negativity is found within, not without.

Character is developed daily, not in a day. Everything we cannot effectively deal with can be traced back to a lack of character on our part. That’s not someone else’s fault. That’s our fault. Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Integrity, put it this way, “Character is the ability to meet the demands of reality.” He also added, “Integrity is the courage to meet the demands of reality.”

Note: I’ve written two books and over 100 blog posts that will help you develop your character and your ability to lead.

When you are surrounded by a sea of negativity, it’s always rooted in a lack of leadership. Where leadership thrives, negativity cannot survive. Negativity cannot thrive in an organization that is being led well. Likewise, negativity cannot thrive in an individual that is leading themselves well. Everything rises and falls on leadership. This includes negativity.

Here’s an important question. Which leader causes the negativity in an organization? Sometimes, it’s a leader above us. But, most often, it’s the leader within us. Here’s the most important question. Which leader can we directly influence to address the negativity? It’s always the one within us.

When we think our problem lies outside of ourselves, that very thought is the problem.

Why? Because if nothing “out there” ever changes, we will always have a problem. But, if we think the problem lies within, we have total control and can find a solution to our problem. Now, we simply must do what it takes in order to work and live in the environment we prefer to be in.

Relative to this lesson, if everyone “out there” remains negative, and all we do is blame them and try to fix them, we are in for a miserable life and/or a frustrating career. But, if everyone “out there” remains negative, and we take responsibility for developing ourselves and focusing on our mission, we will create new and better options for ourselves. We may, in fact, influence them to change as a result, or we will develop ourselves to a level where positive people and teams want us to join them.

When dealing with negative people, it’s always nice to have options. When dealing with positive people, it’s still nice to have options.

Be intentional. Develop yourself by developing your character.

Note: I encourage you to share my blog posts with others if you find value in them. I believe in abundance and write my blogs to help others become more effective and successful. Click here to receive a free download of “Get Out of the Way and Lead” and to subscribe to my email list to receive periodic leadership lessons.

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Mack Story

My passion is helping people understand what’s common sense isn’t always common practice. I help leaders at all levels develop 360° of influence. The result: they take more responsibility and lead with speed.