Coaching Article – 3 Leadership Attributes to Get Through Hard Times

Have you ever witnessed a leader keep a positive, caring influence intact amidst the harshest conditions? I often write and speak about the great leaders that we had in the Vietnam POW camps and how their positive, caring influence helped us to endure years of hardship and isolation and return with honor. Great leaders build trust and use their influence.

A Stellar Leadership Example

After we came home, I returned to flying duties and quickly stepped into leadership roles. With three assignments in Texas, I could not help but learn about the amazing influence of Herb Kelleher, Co-founder, CEO and Chairman Emeritus of Southwest Airlines. I knew several people who worked for Herb, and I met him and visited long enough to observe his genuine strength, humility, and warmth.

Herb passed away in January 2019 at age 87. There was a great article in Forbes that week describing Herb Kelleher’s leadership and how he had repeatedly been voted as the best CEO in America. This short quote from the article summarizes Herb’s approach and the success of his influence –

“Herb never believed that the discipline necessary to run an on-time airline with fantastic service was mutually exclusive with treating people like family and making work fun. He said, ‘I’d rather have a company bound by love than a company bound by fear.’ Southwest has 46 consecutive years of profitability to show for it.”

Herb is a stellar example of how a leader can use his or her influence to create a positive work environment—one where people feel valued and appreciated.

The Current State of Leadership

In the last month, I’ve had conversations with clients from several industries, including the military and not-for-profits. Much of our discussion has focused on their concerns about their people. Stress is hitting everyone hard—at all levels of the organization.

The consistent and rapid changes due to COVID and the related uncertainty about the workplace seem unending. The shortage of people in the labor force has ramped up the challenges. At the same time, the divisions in our culture over vaccinations, race, foreign policy and politics—all being ramped up by social media (and the underlying force of Big Tech AI algorithms)[ii] combine to put people on a mental and emotional edge. Gallup’s latest research shows that burnout is now a big concern.

“So much of the current external pressure in the marketplace is out of our control as honorable leaders, but one thing we can do is influence people in a positive way.” [Tweet This]

This desperate need to provide positive influence generally means helping them feel better, safer, happier, more secure and more successful. For some leaders though, this is just not part of their natural DNA. Honorable leaders learn to connect positively with people even if they have to intentionally adapt their behaviors.

In the book and online training course, Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, I devoted an entire chapter to the idea of “Connecting with the Heart”. At its core this is about enabling people to feel valued and important. This mindset propelled Herb Kelleher to build the only airline that was profitable for more that forty consecutive years. For him, I believe that it was natural and intuitive to connect with the heart with positive energy that raised confidence and performance. Great leaders who don’t have this natural bent can learn to courageously adapt.

In this 5-minute coaching clip, I share this challenge and opportunity more in-depth — please watch:

A More Scientific Approach

Rather than being touchy-feely only, science and research also back up Herb’s approach. With more than twenty years of research, Richard Boyatzis, PhD, and Annie McKee, PhD, have authored several books that tie directly to the need and techniques for leaders to positively influence their people. Their book Resonant Leadership brings a powerful message that can help us be more intentional and positive in our influence. They’ve identified three important attributes –

  1. Mindfulness. This is about intentionally pausing to gain awareness of self, others, and the world around us. They call this attunement—it positions us so we can become consciously attuned and thus monitor our response (or possibly lack of response) to people and events around us.
  2. Hope. This is about taking a positive mindset on the situation, choosing a perspective that enables us to envision and work toward a better future. This can provide inspiration that releases hormones that counter the effects of stress.
  3. Compassion. Caring for self and others and then actually acting upon thoughtful inclinations to connect with them and let them know that we care[1].

I can’t think of a better way to ramp up and get intentional about having a positive influence on ourselves and others, and I believe that Herb would say that this strategy can be the gift that keeps on giving.

Why This Method Works

As I write this coaching article and reflect on Richard and Annie’s three points in the context of my years in the Vietnam POW camps, it now jumps out to my attention—this is exactly what worked for us.

We had hours, days, weeks and for many, months and even years in isolation to reflect and gain mindfulness. Then, as we covertly connected to others, we gained hope—that we could make it and return home someday.  Compassion was ever present; our teammates were often beaten down physically and emotionally, yet we would risk our lives to connect and let them know that we cared about them and would never leave them behind.

Those days are long ago, but we’re facing some tough times. Burnout is hitting like a spreading wildfire, stress is twisting everyone’s mind, and assaults and suicides are on the rise. Let’s all commit to be intentional, mindfully connecting with our inner self (and our faith), envisioning hope for a better future, and then reaching out to connect with compassion to others. We can win this battle if we are intentionally connecting with the hearts of our people.

LE [Tweet This Article]

Positive Culture Development in This Online Training Course

With over 20 years training and coaching leaders, we know that the most effective development comes in community. And our mission has shifted toward leaders developing their people—the most efficient way—growing and taking others with them.  

The challenge is that many leaders don’t feel qualified to conduct training, and it’s expensive. The Courageous Accountability Development Course, based on Lee Ellis’ award-winning book, is a practical, hands-on experience that uses the Courageous Accountability Model™ and the Honor Code as the basis to engage and work together.

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How to Connect with the Heart

From his early experiences as an Air Force jet fighter pilot and POW in the prison camps of Vietnam to an award-winning author, presenter, and leadership consultant, Lee Ellis shares his concerns about the lack of accountability in our culture and how you can apply a positive, proven accountability model to get better results as a leader.

Read his award-winning book, Engage with Honor, to practically add value in your leadership and the team that you lead.

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[ii] Check this out on the mind-rattling docudrama on Netflix, The Social Dilemma.

[1] Lee’s advice to show care to others is to Acknowledge, Accept, Affirm, and Appreciate.



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