“He had only to smile at you, and there was nothing you would not do for him.” — Bernard Montgomery referring to Dwight Eisenhower

A couple of years ago, I went hiking with a group of people in the Italian Lakes District, gorgeous country. The hills are steep and demanding. And on this particular day, the weather turned from overcast to drizzling to blowing rain. We were soaked to the skin despite raingear. The guide assured us that our destination, a cozy chalet featuring a sumptuous meal, was not far ahead. The inclination of the group—a collection of can-do types—was to hike onward. I got to talking with one of the hiking party, a co-founder of Yahoo! In our enthusiasm to chat, we fell to sauntering along and brought up the end of the lengthening line of hikers.

But we were not alone: lagging with us was an unfit person who had been given the hiking trip as a gift for concluding some medical ordeal. Neither she nor the giver really knew the demands that the hikes involved. Her shoes and clothes were inappropriate. Her feet got sore. And her attitude, none-too-good to begin with, got worse as the altitude and rain rose. She unburdened her personal problems to us, deepening the gloom. She declared that she felt like such a schlub and that we should just leave her behind. Mr. Yahoo! and I looked forward and behind, only to discover no one else was in sight. What to do?

Simply leaving her there was out of the question. ((I recalled the even more dramatic dilemma of Bowen McCoy, a former investment banker, who encountered a near-frozen holy man on the high slopes of a mountain in the Himalayas. McCoy had to choose between completing a life’s ambition (climbing the mountain) or helping the holy man. He chose the latter. We have used this story at Darden to teach the importance of listening to values. See “The Parable of the Sadhu“.)) So we slogged on, more slowly. Hoping to get the conversation away from the dreary personal issues, Mr. Yahoo! and I engaged her around four questions.

  • Why did she come on this trip?  What did she look to achieve?   She said that she wanted to prove a come-back of sorts.
  • What values did she hope that this trip would embody?  Courage, she said.
  • How did she suppose the others felt about this situation?  Would it be realistic for us to leave her behind?  We said ‘no.’  Her health and well-being were vulnerable to the exposure close to a mountaintop.
  • What would it take to get through this?  Stopping was not an option.  Carrying her was a last resort.  Simply slogging ahead at a sustainable pace was what we were doing anyway.  To make it sustainable, we sang songs, told jokes, recounted anecdotes from the worst travel experiences we had.  But we got there.  We arrived at the chalet well behind the others, who were warm and into their second decanter of brandy.

I have reflected on this episode ever since, dwelling particularly on the unusual dynamic that got us going and up to the chalet.  Something about the experience gave me energy and buoyancy.  Mr. Yahoo! was part of the inducement — as a serial entrepreneur, he brought considerable life experience of confronting challenges and disappointments.  He was fun to watch in the way he engaged the woman.  Rather like a case method teacher, he engaged her with questions to confirm in her own mind that the only way was to put one foot in front of the other.

A new book by my colleague, Ryan Quinn, and his father, Robert Quinn, helps me understand the turnaround that day and gives me a way of thinking about the successes and failures of leaders I see. Their book, Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation describes the buoyant effect one can have on others and the psychological state, thoughts, and feelings, associated with that effect. This is a wonderful, timely, and important presentation of ideas that are relevant to leaders in all situations. The Quinns describe “lift” as “a psychological state, a temporary pattern of thoughts and feelings in which we are (1) purpose-centered (we have a purpose that is not weighed down by needless expectations); (2) internally-directed (we have a story of how our personal values will guide our actions); (3) other-focused (we feel empathy for the feelings and needs of others); and (4) externally-open (we believe that we can improve at whatever it is we are trying to do). When we experience these thoughts and feelings, we feel uplifted and lift the people around us. “ ((Quinn and Quinn, Lift page 3.))

I think the concept of lift and its elements are important for the development of leaders.  Positive motivation is essential to addressing challenges and opportunities.  I’ve seen it time and again: a listless group is galvanized to a higher level of performance by one or two people.  It’s a learning team, or a consulting engagement team, or a community group.  A certain individual comes along and WHAM, suddenly the group has energy.   In an earlier blog posting of mine, I described the buoyancy of Byrne Murphy a Darden alum and real estate developer in France; his book, Le Deal, conveys exactly this sense of unleashed energy by a very positive individual.

History offers examples too.  In the Second World War, Winston Churchill supposedly said that Dwight Eisenhower’s smile was worth ten divisions.  Eisenhower could coax high performance and collaboration out of prickly and demanding personalities such as Bernard Montgomery.   A close reading of Eisenhower’s biographies suggests a personality with purpose, a story, empathy, and confidence — the qualities of lift.

There is an immense popular literature about leadership, much of it banal or outright wrong.  To some pundits, the ability to create energy in a group comes from barking orders or bringing out the “alpha” in you.  To another it is a matter of systems: the right information technology, monetary incentives, or reporting relationships.  These and other pundits miss what I see: the intervention of a person (maybe not even a leader) who simply infused a new spirit into the group.

Instead, I think that the most promising reading in this area comes from the field of positive psychology. In contrast to abnormal psychology, which studies deviant or destructive behavior, positive psychology looks to identify strengths and virtues — and how to develop them.  I especially commend Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Flow by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, and Mindfulness by Ellen Langer.  To these good works, I’m glad to add Lift by the Quinns: well-grounded in research, highly readable, and full of useful insights for the practical person.