Team beats talent when talent isn't a team: Jon Gordon

Team beats talent when talent isn't a team: Jon Gordon

In an exclusive interaction Human Capital, best-selling author and top leadership expert Jon Gordon, whose principles have been tested by Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, schools, non-profits, and sports teams around the world, discusses why positive leadership is far from being sugary-sweet, nice, and happy all the time or okay with sub-par performance. He also shares key tips on cultivating positive energy and producing positive results to make not just you but everyone around you better.

In order to understand what positive leadership is, it might help to first understand what it is not. What are the most common misconceptions about being a positive leader?


People often think that positive leadership is Pollyanna Leadership, seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses, using fake positivity, always smiling, not confronting problems, and ignoring reality. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.


Positive leadership is about seeing the challenges but also focusing on the solutions, seeing the positive when others don’t, being demanding without being demeaning, demonstrating commitment when others want to quit, and maintaining optimism, belief, and faith to create a better reality. It’s about knowing that you have the power to overcome the thorns.


Positive leadership is also not about having fun all the time. It’s about doing serious, good work while being positive along the way to ensure you achieve the results you want. It’s about driving towards excellence, believing the best is yet to come, and then giving your best to create the best outcome.


You have said: Positive Leadership isn’t just a state of mind. It’s a state of action. That’s a powerful statement. Can you speak more about what that means and how leaders can practice it on a regular basis?


The action part is what you do to develop relationships because positive leadership is not just about a state of mind that makes you feel better. What are you doing each day to lead and positively influence others, helping them go where they need to go and be what they ultimately can be? There are four Cs to focus on:


i. Communication: Where there’s a void in communication, negativity will fill it.


ii. Connection: Positive leaders connect in a meaningful way, not just collectively with a group; they meet one-on-one with the people they lead to develop a relationship with them. That’s where they earn and build trust through connection.


iii.Commitment: Positive leaders are committed to helping others be the best they can be. It’s about being a servant leader; it is saying, “I’m going to serve you. I’m going to give up my time and energy and maybe make other sacrifices in order to help you be the best you can be.” Commitment is all about service and sacrifice.


iv. Care: How you show you care is your caring trademark as a leader. Each person has their own way of demonstrating that. As a leader, your actions should show that you care. Caring just a state of mind; it’s a state of action.


Do you believe a great team of average individuals is better than a dysfunctional team full of A-players? Can you give a couple of practical tools that leaders can use to build a team that’s greater than the sum of its individual constituents?


Team beats talent when talent isn’t a team! You may have a lot of talent, but if you are not united and connected, you will not be a strong team. An average team that implements the four Cs mentioned earlier will perform at a higher level. When I work with teams, I can tell who’s connected and who’s committed (or not). When adversity hits, do they run away from each other, or do they run towards each other? Do they fight for each other, or do they fight against one another?


I’m a big believer in teambuilding exercises to become a stronger team. One of my favourite exercises is the HHH: hero, hardship and highlight. You share with your team about a hero in your life, a hardship you’ve faced that made you who you are today, and a highlight that you’re proud of.


As each person shares their hero, hardship, and highlight, you get to know each other a whole lot better, and a connection is formed. As each person is sharing, that vulnerability paves the way to meaningful relationships, strong connections, and a stronger team. The walls of pride and ego come crumbling down when you do this.


You advocate a simple yet powerful ‘no complaining rule’ that can have an incredibly positive impact on teamwork. How can leaders apply this rule to set their teams up for success?


The rule says you’re not allowed to complain unless you also offer a possible solution. You’re allowed to bring complaints because complaints are a catalyst for new ideas, new processes, and better ways of doing things. So, you want to utilise complaints, but you also want to eliminate mindless, toxic complaining that winds up sabotaging the team and the culture. One person can’t make a team, but one person can break a team, especially one who complains a lot. This rule empowers you and your team to create solutions instead of focusing on complaints that can have a massive impact on teamwork, engagement, culture, and performance.


In one of your books, you talk about harnessing the power of a coffee bean to overcome any form of adversity, turn seemingly negative circumstances into positive opportunities, and become more resilient. This interesting metaphor invites further exploration. What does it mean to be like a coffee bean, and how can that be put into practice?


When you put a carrot into hot water, it softens. When you put an egg into boiling hot water, it hardens. You can be like the egg, getting a hardened heart from your circumstances, becoming bitter, angry, and frustrated. You can also be like the carrot becoming weakened by the situation. You soften, crumble from the fear, anxiety, and stress. You don’t want to be like either of those. You want to be like the coffee bean.


You put a coffee bean in boiling hot water, and it transforms the water into coffee. What that means is that it’s not impacted by its environment, instead, it transforms its environment. We have the same power as the coffee bean. We don’t have to allow our circumstances to define us or allow the fear and negativity and all the stress to beat us and bring us down.


Being a positive leader means knowing that you can transform your environment, team, and culture from the inside out. Being a coffee bean means that the power within you is able to impact the world around you.


Intense change and uncertainty involve leadership vision of many types. How does the telescope and microscope analogy that you often talk about come into play on this front? Also, how can leaders develop their telescopic and microscopic attributes?


A telescope allows you to see the big picture of where you want to go. We all need a vision or goal to be able to create.


A microscope helps you zoom in and focus on the actions that you need to take each day to realise the picture in the telescope—what you need to do today to succeed, win, and make great things happen today.


So you, as a leader, need both the telescope and the microscope. If you just have a microscope and no telescope, you will be taking daily actions but will lose sight of the big picture. When you forget about your vision and purpose, you will likely give up along the way and get frustrated in the present because you can’t see the future.


If you have a telescope and no microscope, you will have vision without execution, which leads to nothing. If you have a vision but are not taking actions, that will lead to delusion. So you have to make sure that you are taking both big picture steps and zoom-focused actions.


What does the formula E + P = O mean, and why is it important? How can we apply it to dispel negativity and tackle tough situations?


E + P = O means that we can’t always control the (E)vents in our lives, but we can control our (P)ositive responses to these events, and this often determines the (O)utcome.


We can’t control the events that occur around the world, but we can control our positive response, our attitude, our mindset, our perspective. How you see the world determines the world that you see.


When change occurs, we can either focus on the challenges or choose to look for opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. We can ask what this event is teaching us and identify how we can grow stronger and wiser from it. If you perceive it as negative or a challenge and something that’s going to sabotage you for the rest of your life, you’ll give up. But if you see it as an opportunity, you’re going to take the necessary steps to create a positive future.


Be a coffee bean, be positive, and define the future—that’s what great leaders do. They don’t allow their present situations to keep them from creating a brighter and better future.



With 6+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR - from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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