The power of positivity: Three lessons from the military

In his book, Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom For Today’s Leaders, General Rick Hillier shares his insights on leadership, gleaned from over 30 years of service in the Canadian Forces. General Hillier was appointed Commander of the Army in 2003 and promoted to Chief of the Defence Staff in 2005. He stepped down in 2008.

When I read the book, I was especially inspired by the General’s views on positivity. In the midst of dangerous operations in military hot-spots like Afghanistan, Hillier emphasized the importance of staying positive and sharing that positive outlook with his team. “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” General Hillier says. “Your job, your responsibility as a leader, is to be optimistic and to communicate that optimism to those who follow you as part of enabling them to be successful.”

When leaders exhibit optimism, even in times of crisis, they serve as a source of empowerment for the people they lead. According to Hillier, “At a cost of nothing, [the leader] is empowering with energy, confidence and passion everyone around her, and empowering them as a group to achieve an effect out of all proportion to the numbers.”

Being positive is a simple yet effective way to lift up people around you. While most of us will never be responsible for keeping troop morale high in war-torn parts of the world, we can still learn from General Hillier’s wisdom and experiences. Here are three easy ways to adopt “perpetual optimism” in your own life and work.

The Power of a Smile

One way to share positivity with others is to smile. Even in the most unlikely situations, a smile can be a force of goodwill. In the book, General Hillier talks about the disarming power of smiling at people he encountered during operations, particularly during his time in Afghanistan. He almost always got a positive response in return, even from complete strangers.

A smile is a remarkable thing. Not only does smiling help to make others feel good, it is good for you too. Studies have shown that smiling on a regular basis can reduce stress, boost your mood and improve your overall well-being. It can also make you appear more likeable and competent to others. There’s even evidence that smiling is linked to a longer life expectancy. To learn more about the hidden powers of smiling, check out this TED Talks presentation by Ron Gutman. According to Gutman, one smile produces the equivalent brain stimulation as eating 2,000 bars of chocolate or receiving $25,000 in cash.

One of the best things about a smile is it’s contagious. When you smile at someone, they tend to smile too. So by smiling, you are effectively passing its benefits to the other person. What a kind gift to give.

It’s no surprise that leaders, like General Hillier, have learned to tap into the remarkable power of smiling – it’s a good way to nurture a healthier, more positive disposition amongst a team. If it can work for a battle-hardened General in a place like Afghanistan, there’s no reason it cannot work for you.

Show Respect

One of General Hillier’s mantras is to always treat people with respect and he expected his troops to do the same, even with the enemy. “Never demean, insult or belittle your people, even in jest,” he says. “Instead, build up their pride by showing them that each and every one of them is a respected, mature and responsible adult.”

What does this mean for you? One way to show respect to others is to use positive, affirming language rather than negative words in your communications. Acknowledge people and express gratitude for their accomplishments, and offer words of encouragement where appropriate. Give compliments to people, no matter if they are in front of you or not. Indeed, one of the best ways to show respect to others is to speak highly of them when they are not present in a conversation – imagine that you’re their personal champion. One simple rule of thumb is to only speak about people in a way you’d like others to speak about you. Being positive in your communications, both verbal and written, is a wonderful way to show respect, build strong relationships, and inspire others to do the same.

Be Playful

General Hillier also talks about using humour as a way to share positivity with others. He states: “What we remember from past experiences is how we felt at the time, and humour helps to mark those experiences in our memory in the most positive way.” Even in the most challenging times, Hillier found that humour was a helpful way to relieve stress and build positive, shared experiences amongst his troops. Whether you’re leading a group in the midst of a crisis, or just engaging in conversation with friends or family, humour is a powerful tool for sharing positivity with others, so long as it’s not used to belittle or demean people. So remember to be playful – and play nice.