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Leadership in difficult times: Thinking beyond ‘the glass is half-full’

So much is written and said about leadership, so I’ll dive in a different direction: the direction of leaders who lead people to do the hard but beneficial things.

The words are hardest to read and accept during the most difficult of times: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” Napoleon Hill, most famously known for being tasked by Andrew Carnegie to interview and learn from the most successful people, and the author of “Think and Grow Rich,” inked those words. I revisit the quote weekly, if not more often.

A seed of great benefit from the most difficult times? Yes, it’s absolutely possible, and likely when connected to reticular activation. The simplistic, nonmedical explanation of the Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves at our brain stem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through. Here’s the problem: Most of the decision making about what’s important happens at the subconscious level.

Here’s the best example of the RAS in action. Let’s say you buy a car you really want. Not your dream car, but a car that you’d be excited to drive to work each day. You think it’s unique. The color is just right. The body style is the one you like best. You drive it off the car lot and within minutes you start noticing the same car – all over the place. The car you thought was unique isn’t so unique. Many other people are driving the same make, model and often color. Your RAS was activated around the car. Before the purchase, those cars weren’t important, and thus they were ignored.

What if we made a conscious effort to look for the seed of opportunity in the hardest of times? You may be thinking that the difficult circumstances are not your fault and are out of your control. You’re right! I heard an interview with the actor Will Smith recently. He was talking about working through tough times. He said something along the lines of, “It may not be your fault, but your response is your responsibility.”

How do we respond in difficult times? It’s the combination of sage advice, brain science and words from a famous face. There’s really only one positive, productive and empowering way: to intentionally search for the seed of equal or greater benefit.

Helping those you lead understand the importance of this paradigm is what Ron Price, in his book “The Complete Leader,” calls transcending self-interest and self-promotion to serve a greater cause.

Dale Dixon is chief innovation officer of the Better Business Bureau Northwest.