Leading Culture Change: A Lesson from Pollyanna

Do you remember the children’s story of Pollyanna? Pollyanna is an orphan taken in by her reclusive aunt. Despite a difficult life, she always looks for the positive; searches for the best in people. Conversely, her aunt always expects the worst and has a low estimation of human nature.

Events escalate until Pollyanna’s brightness is finally extinguished by the persistent negativity around her. With her light gone, family and townsfolk acknowledge how empty their lives have become. Of course there’s a happy ending when the community culture shifts to adopt Pollyanna’s optimism.

It has always baffled me to hear the derisive tone associated with “being a Pollyanna.” What does it say about a society where cynicism has higher value than idealism? Where a cheerful, hopeful approach is seen as unrealistic or flaky? Where caring is overridden by judging? Where learning about someone’s failure is more satisfying than hearing of their success? Where we seek to define our separateness more than our connection?

Sociologists blame our disillusionment on the state of politics, corporations and the economy. Since belton_pollyannaworkplaces are a microcosm of the larger culture, it’s no surprise that those attitudes trickle down.

It’s easy to become distrustful of those who have more power than we do, who work in unfamiliar environments or hold different views. It’s normal to suspect their motives, question their intentions, become defensive or push back. Sometimes those reactions are warranted. Almost always, at some level of consciousness, they are an attempt to redress the balance of power.

One way to deal with those feelings is to compartmentalize them, but beware of rationalizations for being less than our higher selves. “It’s just business,” or “No margin, no mission,” may be clues that we’ve disconnected who we think we need to be from who we really are. Any time we suspend our values to get over a bump in the road, our internal alarms should go off.

We are faced daily with life’s tough realities, things we don’t like, events beyond our control, even pain. It’s not unnatural to become jaded, frustrated or demoralized. But perhaps there has never been a time that we needed Pollyannas more.

Let’s not forget among our heroes those Pollyannas who, in the face of a dim reality, create their own reality; who are quick to smile, ready to help, slow to anger, disposed to listen, and who delight in saying, “Yes!” Who don’t write off what seems impossible, but ask how to make it possible. Who shape their environment instead of being shaped by it. Who dig deep to uncover opportunities, even when they’re buried in the muck. Who lead culture change within their sphere of influence, no matter how small or large that sphere may be. Who step beyond that which divides us to embrace our common bonds. Who look past conflict and confrontation to glimpse the radiance of our humanity.

“Pollyanna-ism” is not head-in-the-sand- behavior: it’s a perspective of hopefulness and possibility. Being called a Pollyanna is a testament to resilience, service, character and compassion.

If you are so fortunate as to wear this label, don’t protest. Say, “Thank you!” Refuse to let your light be extinguished.

beltonBlog excerpted from:
A Nobler Side of Leadership: The Art of Humanagement (A Servant Leader Journey)
By Linda W. Belton

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