What I learned in Mr. Sampson’s Barbershop: Teachers, Coaches, and Mentors as Supportive Positive Influence Leaders

What I learned in Mr. Sampson’s Barbershop: Teachers, Coaches, and Mentors as Supportive Positive Influence Leaders

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Bob, an African American management consultant in our study group, recalled fondly the time spent as a 12-year old hanging around the local barbershop in his neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. 

The barber, Mr. Sampson, introduced Bob and other young men to black history in a town where, at the time, the public-school curriculum did not include anything about the history of famous black Americans. These experiences of looking at the pictures on the wall of the barbershop and talking with Mr. Sampson and the other people in the shop helped Bob learn and understand his heritage and, as he said, “think of myself in a positive light.” 

This experience served him well when he later attended a college in New Jersey, where the percentage of African American students was less than one percent. Thinking of himself “in a positive light” helped Bob negotiate both the academic and social challenges of being a young African American man on the campus. He was also helped by an upper class man who became a role model for his steadiness, rigor, and discipline; who taught him how to position himself in the college community; and from whom he learned the social skills necessary for success. 

Supportive Positive Influence is Always Situational

American actress Viola Davis has talked often about how supportive Meryl Streep has been to her since they appeared together in the Broadway product of Doubt. In fact, before Davis went onstage to accept her 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Fences, she stopped to give Streep a kiss and a hug. They often exchange phone calls and notes. Davis has said Streep says things that make her feel that “what I have is enough.” In other words, being supportive in this case means “you are good enough to be successful; you don’t need to feel lesser than.” And successful she is.  Davis is the only African American actress to win a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy. 

Betsy, a woman we interviewed, was studying theater in college assuming her true north was acting, writing, and directing. However, the course of study included a required course in technical theater, where the focus was on lighting, sound, and set design. During the course, Jim, the instructor, assigned Betsy to go up on a tall ladder and hang lights on a clamp high above the stage. As Betsy recounts the situation now with a typical sense of humor, she says, “I had never been on a ladder. I was a little Jewish girl. We never even had a ladder in our house. But Jim, said, ‘Betsy, you can do it,’ and I believed him.” 

This was a game changer for Betsy. As she told us, “In those days, no one would send a woman to do something technical in the theater. From there I began using power tools, learned how to build a set, and wire everything on a stage.” 

Sometimes being a supportive leader requires that you give the person confidence that they can achieve their goals. Peter, a medical oncologist, spoke of Dr. Zwicker, his mentor in college who gave him an opportunity to work in his lab as an undergraduate. His willingness to let Peter work in the lab gave him confidence, as did having him work on his projects.

Ultimately, he made Peter co-author of an article based on their work in the lab. Dr. Zwicker saw that Peter lacked confidence because he came to the United States from Korea, with limited knowledge of the English language and culture. However, as Peter said, “He let me come along when he saw patients—which, in turn, inspired me to go to medical school. From these experiences with Dr. Zwicker, I learned that you create your own barriers and you need to break down those barriers because no one can do it for you.”

The supportive positive influence leader will be there for you, but will also tell you the hard truth, provide the guidance you need, and help you get to the next level.

For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).

Finding Your True North: The Power of Motivating Positive Influence

Finding Your True North: The Power of Motivating Positive Influence

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The motivating leader inspires, pushes, or perhaps pulls you to take action. She goes deeper than the surface impact of words to help you find your purpose—or what Bill George (2015) calls your true north. This positive influence leader finds your “sweet spot,” that part of you that is central to who you are or who you are destined to become. It is not unusual for this leader to see that special something in you that even you have not yet realized was there. 

Such was the case with Nancy, a woman we interviewed, who cites Terry Taylor, her editor at the Associated Press, as a seminal force in her work life. As Nancy told us: “Not only did Terry give me opportunities that made me realize that I wanted to be a sportswriter, but she set the tone in our department that women were every bit equal to men. I didn’t realize it until later how valuable that was.”

For Mindi, founder and director of a center for abused women, Mona was a life-altering motivating influence in her life and career. Early in Mindi’s work life, Mona was her boss at a women’s health clinic. At one point, when Mindi expressed a desire to start a place for abused women, Mona said to her: “Why haven’t you done it? Sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me. You can come up with a bunch of excuses to not make it happen.” Mindi told us, “I never forgot that conversation. It led me to get off my butt and do something about it.”

Gissoo, another woman in our study group, made a significant career change later in life to work as a patient advocate for a pharmaceutical company. In that capacity, she was fortunate to be able to interact with a high level executive in the company who helped her find her true north when he told her, “Do one thing and do it well.” He gave Gissoo a larger view of her life, work, and career by recommending that she focus on “the long-term aspects over the work I needed to get done now.”

For most people, discovering their true north is essential to a successful and satisfying work life and career. Often, it is a manager who serves as that motivating positive influence on you. You encounter them at a time when you may not be fully formed—but if you are open and ready to receive and utilize their perspective, their influence can be transformational. They see that something in you and can help you find your core purpose. 

For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).

Don’t Pay It Back: How Positive Influence Leaders Pay It Forward

Don’t Pay It Back: How Positive Influence Leaders Pay It Forward

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Singer/songwriter Taylor Swift donated $1 million to the V Foundation for Cancer Research, but she also gave $50,000 to the nephew of one her backup singers who was being treated for cancer. It’s clear that people who have benefitted from a positive influence in their life tend to be a positive force in the lives of many of the people they encounter.

Our research indicates that some people take their experience of being on the receiving end of a positive influence leader and look for opportunities to have a similar impact on people they encounter in their work life. They can point to specific people they have impacted and the positive outcomes of those encounters. We also found that others have adopted a more generalized approach to people that seeks to have a positive influence on everyone in their orbit.

Paying it Forward with a Specific Person

Debra, a senior manager we interviewed in a large pharmaceutical company, benefited from several women early in her career who were a positive influence by helping her become more self-aware and focused on her successes, while still dealing with areas that needed improvement. In turn, she has been a positive influence on a specific direct report in her organization—a woman who told her, “You gave me an opportunity to grow, to see beyond my current self and, most important, to learn that you do not lose when you collaborate with others.”

Tony, a martial arts instructor in our study group, made a conscious effort to pay it forward by volunteering at a rape crisis center. At the center, he taught martial arts to a group of women, many of whom had been raped. He taught them the necessary skills to defend themselves—but first, as he said, “I had to break down their socialization tendencies. For example, when I hit them, they showed paralyzing emotional distress sometimes, including tears.” However, he knew he was making progress when, in a sparring match, he hit a woman a bit too hard and knocked her unconscious. As he knelt down to tend to her, she quickly regained consciousness and immediately, upon seeing him hovering over her, punched him in the nose. As Tony told us, “It was the best reaction I could have hoped for.”

Ray, a senior level corporate CIO, was a great influence on a junior analyst who worked for him. Later, the analyst became a CIO himself at a major company. When he had a decision to make, he told Ray, “I would say to myself, what would Ray do?”

Paying it Forward Across the Board

During his travels to Africa, movie actor Matt Damon learned about the challenges of providing access to safe water and sanitation in Saharan Africa. To address the issue, he co-founded www.water.org. Damon and his team have already raised more than $14 million to address the problem. However, he also takes an active interest in the work, including making site visits to multiple countries, developing strategy, and serving as an advocate for clean water in meetings with the World Bank and World Economic Forum

Some people in our study group said they pay it forward by adopting the principles learned from their positive influence leader and applying them in all of their interactions. For example, Dick reported that he incorporates the teachings of his two main mentors—specifically, be present, focus on the person, be consistent in your actions, and above all, use a questioning mode during interpersonal interactions—in all of his efforts to be a positive influence on the people in his organization. 

In a similar fashion, Mark has a principle that guides all his interactions with the people who work for him: “If you want to be a good boss, take more of the blame than you think you deserve and take less of the credit than you think you earned.”

Frank, a psychiatrist we interviewed, learned the importance of morality and positive values from his father. He, in turn, passes these values along to the people he encounters. Frank believes strongly in the value of treating all people with dignity, doing things the right way, and having a strong moral center. As he told us, “I pass along the importance of being respectful, that we are all the same and all our stories are sacred.”

Do You Pay It Forward?

In the course of your work or personal life, have you been a positive influence on another person? Describe the situation and how it played out.

For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).

How I Found My Sweet Spot: Learn How I Discovered My True North

How I Found My Sweet Spot: Learn How I Discovered My True North

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I think of my sweet spot as that place or series of actions where I am most effective, where I can create the most value for others and the most satisfaction for me. Some people refer to it as your true north. I was fortunate to have found my sweet spot early in my working life. If truth be told, someone helped me find it. 

Rather than talk more about it, let me take you back to that day and tell you the story of how it happened.

I should tell you that it’s my first job out of grad school and this is my first performance assessment. My job involves doing research and writing reports. The work is repetitive and rather boring. On the other hand, to a 23-year old like me, the people over in education seem to be having lots of fun flying all over the country conducting leadership classes. 

So, the performance evaluation meeting with my boss, Larry, is going well. Then he says, “Let’s talk about your development plan and what you want to do over the next year to improve.” 

I ask Larry if I can observe a leadership class as part of my development. He responds, “As a matter of fact, I am travelling down South next week to run some workshops. And Glenn, I’m happy to have you come with me, but I can’t justify your travel expenses unless you conduct one of the classes.” I panic and say, “Larry, what would I teach? I don’t know anything.” 

He tells me not to worry, he will figure out something I can do. And he was right. I was able to teach something useful and the response was very positive. From that experience, I realized learning and development was my sweet spot, my true north. 

I should mention that Larry was not an especially charismatic leader. However, as research tells us, leaders who establish interpersonal connections and empower action are more likely to positively influence others than a leader with an excess of personal charisma. 

It was only many years later that I came to understand what Larry had done. He saw something in me—he believed in me, believed that I could teach and do it well. And rather than give me a rah-rah motivation talk, he created a situation and the conditions for me to be successful and realize it for myself. He was the first positive influence leader in my work life. 

Our research indicates that you don’t have to be famous or wildly successful to have benefitted from a positive influence in your life. You don’t get to be a highly regarded corporate manager, an award-winning school teacher, a life-saving oncologist, or a fitness guru without some help along with the way. Every person we interviewed had no problem identifying a person, often more than one, without whom they would not have made it. 

For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).

Four Types of Positive Influence Leaders: Which One Are You?

Four Types of Positive Influence Leaders: Which One Are You?

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At the outset of our research, we expected to find a set of characteristics or traits that hung together to form an effective positive influence leader. However, the data told us clearly that successful positive influence leaders come in different sizes and shapes. In other words, “One size does not fit all.”

A positive influence leader in your work life is sometime very supportive, frequently an exceptional teacher, at times quite motivating, and often, a confident role model. Effective and successful leaders all have a positive influence on the members of their team, but in different ways and often with a different emphasis. In other words, you can be a highly successful leader using one or perhaps two of the four styles.

Our research shows that all of us have the capacity to use the strengths of all four styles; we just happen to use one or perhaps two styles most often. For example, from our interviews, we learned that certain leaders have been at times an effective teacher; while at other times, they have provided a motivating type of leadership influence, depending upon what the person needed at a specific time in their work life. Other combinations have emerged as well. 

The Supportive Positive Influence Leader

For many people, the first positive influence in their life was a parent or grandparent who believed in them, encouraged them, and supported them from their very first days. It is this capacity for being supportive that is one of strengths of the effective leader, whether you find that person in the home or in the workplace. 

For example, founder of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Athens, Greece.  She credits her mother with the being the most positive influence in her life. As Huffington said, “She made me feel that I could aim for the stars. And if I failed along the way, that is okay. Failure is not the opposite of success, she used to say, it’s a stepping stone to success.”

The Supportive Positive Influence Leader believes in her people but, more importantly, helps the members of her team believe in themselves.

The Teacher Positive Influence Leader

Many people point to that special teacher who inspired them to achieve greatness, while also teaching them important career skills and how to navigate bumps in the road of life. 

Physicist and astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to walk in space, credits her graduate school professor, Dr. Arthur Walker, for instilling confidence in her such that she believed she could accomplish anything set her sights on, even becoming an astronaut. 

For many women who grew up in an earlier time, a positive influence helped them tackle a job that was previously considered the sole purview of men. For example, Betsy, a woman we interviewed for the book, said her theater teacher convinced her that woman could be successful working on the technical side of theater such as building a set and lighting the stage. 

Teachers are great leaders when they teach people what they need to learn in order to be successful. Perhaps more importantly, as leaders, they create in people the desire to use their skills to achieve great things.

The Motivating Positive Influence Leader

For some people, their pivotal influence came in the workplace when they encountered a manager who “saw something in me” or “pushed me to do something different” or “held me accountable.” The motivating manager identifies some untapped part of you that was previously unknown to you.

Steve Jobs served as a mentor and advisor to Mark Zuckerberg. The two often met to discuss management practices. Zuckerberg credits Jobs with helping him understand that “what you build can change the world.”

Roxanne, a nurse manager in a hospital-based cancer center, whom we interviewed, said the motivating leader in her work life was Dr. Dan Fram, a radiation oncologist. It was his caring approach to patients and the key moments they spent together that convinced her that “oncology provides me with the best opportunity to help people.” 

Effective leaders are motivating leaders who see things in people they often do not see in themselves. They help people realize their potential by showing them the way . . . while not doing it for them. 

The Role Model Positive Influence Leader

“The greatest thing about Michael Jordan was that he was not afraid to fail,” said LeBron James of his boyhood idol and role model. Every fan of basketball during those days will recall that Jordan never feared failure, which is why he was always willing to take the biggest shots in the biggest games. He viewed failure as part of his success and a key part of his development. 

Adriana, a woman we interviewed for the book, came to the US to attend college and pursue a career in business. Adriana saw Dina Habib Powell as her role model. Powell is best known for having been the United States Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy to President Donald Trump. She also served in the Bush (43) and Obama administrations. When Dina came to the US with her parents from Egypt, she could not speak a word of English.

In Dina, Adriana found someone to whom she could relate, and saw that it was possible to be an immigrant woman of global impact. This is the essence of an inspiring positive influence role model leader.

When great leaders serve as positive influence role models, they usually provide clear examples of how things are done properly and push people beyond their assumed limits. 

Which Positive Influence Leader are You? 

  1. Supportive
  2. Teacher
  3. Motivating
  4. Role Model

Maybe you are a combination of several types. Perhaps, for example, you are a Motivating and a Role Model Positive Influence Leader who is able to inspire people to take action, while at the same time serving as a positive example from whom they can learn.

For more stories of positive influence and how you can become a positive influence leader, pick up a copy of our new book, Positive Influence: The Who Helps People Become the Best Self (HRD Press, 2020).