Video: The BB&T Leadership Series - Jon Gordon

CEO Kelly King shares insights on leadership topics from some of today's best and brightest thought leaders.

Developing Positive People - Part 1

Jon Gordon, the well-known author, speaker and consultant discusses how to combat negativity and find opportunity in failure.

Jon, welcome. We're glad to have you with us.

Good to be with you.

Probably most of the viewers know the Jon Gordon name because he's written 18 plus books, many bestsellers. I know in our company, Jon, we've talked a lot about The Energy Bus, The Carpenter, The Power of Positive Leadership, The Power of a Positive Team, and many, many others. But Jon's also been well recognized nationally and internationally in various TV shows, The Today Show, CNN, NBC, Fox many, many others. But he has a really well-developed career in terms of coaching and working as a consultant with various organizations like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Falcons, Clemson University. What a great turnaround there.


More to your credit, I'm sure. And also Dell, Campbell Soup, BB&T, others. So quite a successful career in terms of working with organizations. You and I know that there are many, many factors that make quote, unquote, a good leader. But why is being a positive leader so important?

Well, because pessimists don't change the world. Complainers talk about problems, but they don't solve them. Critics write words, but they don't write the future. I mean, throughout history, we see that it's the positive leaders, the believers, the dreamers, and the doers, that transform their teams, their organizations, and change the world.

And with so much negativity, you said it, with so much adversity and challenges, we need that optimism and belief that we can overcome this challenge, that we can move forward and create a better and brighter future. But positive leadership is also not just about positive thinking. It's about positive acting. And it's about developing relationships.

So when I was developing this and writing this book, I was thinking about not just thoughts, but also actions that are positive that allow you to develop great relationships that build great teams. So I would say the two going together, in terms of thinking and then developing your team in a positive way, those two together allow you to really transform your team and then together you can go make an impact in the world.

Over the years at BB&T, we've talked a lot about what I call EPA, enthusiastic positive attitude.

I love that.

And you talk a lot about positivity and in both of your power books, The Power of Leadership and The Power of a Positive Team, you deal with a very important subject. You deal with the importance of dealing and confronting negativity and transforming it to positivity. Talk about that.

Yeah. This is not about Pollyanna positive. This is about real positivity that allows you to deal with the negativity, confront it, try to transform it. If you can't transform it, you then have to remove it. Because the biggest mistake that leaders make is they do not deal with the negativity that exists on their teams and in their organization. So it persists, it exists, and then eventually the negativity will sabotage the team.

So as a leader, you have to make sure you're addressing the negativity. It's hard to do it. We don't want to do it a lot of times because it's uncomfortable. But when we do it and we do it in a positive way, because you can't be negative about negativity, but when you do in a positive way, you're able to transform it and you turn around that negative into a positive.

And that means sometimes you may have to let someone off the bus who's not willing to change. It means that you have to really get to know your people and find out what makes them tick and make sure that you're being a positive leader and you're not being negative. So you have to make sure you're really embracing them, helping them, guiding them, and mentoring them.

And ultimately, it's about saying, you know what? We're at our best when we're positive. And if we're negative, we're not going to be able create the future together. So we have to make sure that we're doing this in a positive way.

And I've found over the years that you're right. So many leaders struggle with dealing with negativity and asking someone to get off the bus. But most of the times, it's the kind of thing you can do for a person because if they can't, for whatever reason, join this mission, get excited about and be passionate about what we're trying to do on this bus, then maybe if they get on another bus they can be excited. At least they have a shot.


And so you're really helping them.

It's better for them to perhaps get on another bus where they're meant to be, but it's also better for everyone else in the organization. I had a leader say to me once, you know, when we ask someone to get off if they're not willing to change, we give them every opportunity to change. Let's make sure we're clear on that because we still want to lead with the love and empathy first.

You're not supposed to go in and say, you're either on my bus or off my bus. That's not the intent of this. But when you let someone off, it's not because you don't care about them, it's also because you care about everybody else. And if that one person is hurting everyone else and sabotaging the team, then you're making sure that you do this for everybody else. One person can't make a team, but one person could break a team.

Absolutely. That's well said. Well said. I want to talk about an experience you had because people struggle with this, in terms of finding their why, their purpose in life. You had a very successful career in the restaurant business. And as I remember, you actually sold that business, for a nice price I'm sure, but you sold that business, even though it was very successful before you were an established speaker, writer, commentator. How did you have the courage to do that?

I think it was a lot of faith and a lot of just maybe—just being naive and saying, you know, we're going to go for this. My wife said, you know, what happens if it doesn't work? I said there are no other options. Like we have to sell the restaurant. I knew it was time.

We had three of them. They were doing well, but not, you know, phenomenal. But I looked at my vision and looked at my future and said, do I want to be in the restaurant business where I own 20, 30, 50 restaurants, because that's where I'd be going.

And I said, you know what? That's not my purpose. That's not my why. That's not my calling. I'm good at it, but it's not what I'm meant to do.

Once I knew that, I said, OK, it's time. I have to sell the restaurants and focus on this. I didn't sell it for a huge amount, but enough that I could probably live off with my wife and kids for maybe two years. OK. Not a huge, like, you know, safety net.

But it was the mindset that said I have to go after this and pursue this calling of writing and speaking, and somehow, some way, no matter how long it takes, I'm going to go do this. I said even if it takes 10 years, at least I'll be working towards something where I'm making a difference and I'm living my purpose. And the best decision I ever made.

And what I've found is that the most effective leaders are effective because they are really genuinely passionate about what they're trying to accomplish.

They have to have a purpose. They have to know their purpose, live their purpose, but they also have to help their team have a purpose as well. Ignite the purpose in others. So your purpose should ignite others to really live and ultimately find and share their purpose. So we don't get burned out because of what we do. We get burned out because we forget why we do it.


But once you know your why, you'll know the way and you'll never let obstacles get in the way.

You and I both have heard over the years people say, great leaders are born, you know, and you see some great leader on TV or giving a big speech and it would be great to just be a natural born professional speaker leader like that. But what I found, in my own case and observed with others, is along the way of becoming really good are a lot of mistakes. Talk about any mistakes along the way that you experienced that kind of helped you make those giant steps forward.

Well, I think I made a lot of mistakes along the way in terms of—I mean, early on, I wasn't, I would say, I wasn't a great husband, wasn't a great father. I was actually very negative, believe it or not. And my wife gave me an ultimatum and said, you know, you need to change or you're off the bus. This is before The Energy Bus was even written. But I knew I needed to change and so that began my journey of wanting to become a writer and speaker and that really changed my life in many ways of working to become more positive.

Along the way I, you know, I made mistakes in terms of probably just, you know, some talks I gave where I don't think I gave the greatest talks and I failed a lot along the way. I had a lot of rejections of organizations I wanted to speak to and it didn't go well, you know, early on. And so I learned from those experiences along the way.

But I know that every mistake I made I wasn't failing. I was becoming. I wasn't failing. I was growing. And I could look back and I could see how everything prepared me for this future. I mean, we did some things where, again, you know you fail with some things, you have some ideas that you said you think is going to work and, you know, they don't work.

But along the way, I mean, I haven't made any huge mistakes. I mean, I partnered with a training company once that was going to take my ideas and go train on it and they turned out to be a—you know, they weren't full of integrity and so that relationship ended and I learned to lot from that relationship. And so from that experience, though, I said, all right, I'm going to now go forward and pick the right partners. I'm going to make sure I really work with the right people. And ever since, I've been so careful about who I partner with.

And we started The Energy Bus for schools movement, you know, and that's been a great journey working with the right people on that. We're now doing the Power of Positive Leadership training program. I pick the right people to work with that. So again, I did trace back to that mistake, but now it's led to so many great opportunities.

I just want to make a point for our audience. One of your books, The Energy Bus, you translated The Energy Bus for Kids.


And we sent that—I don't know if I told you—we sent that to all of our associates that had young children and I've never gotten more positive feedback about any book we've distributed than that.

When I heard you did that, I was so excited to know that. That's actually the best feeling in the world to know that you're making an impact on families and children, just to know that this work is impacting the next generation. I love that.

But you know, you're talking about negativity and experiences, I had one of those experiences early on in my career. I was working for a guy who was just a really genuinely negative guy. And the office that I was working in was not doing well. Everybody was down. Everybody was negative. In fact, this guy was so negative, I like to say, when the positive thinking writers would come to town, he would go and offer to give the rebuttal.


He was a really negative guy. So I saw that it was even getting to me. And so, you know, I actually developed a positive thinking program for the organization, actually called the EPA program. And it really helped pull everybody out of that negative view of life and things started turning around, people got more positive, results got better. So it really does work.

It really does.

Gandhi said I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet. And I think that's what you did. You said, OK, I'm not going to let this guy affect my mindset. I'm going to choose the right mindset and then transform the organization with that.

Speaking of mindset, I wanted to chat with you a bit about Dr. Carol Dweck's concept of growth mindset. In that, she talks about fixed mindset and growth mindset. You've been kind of the epitome of having a growth mindset. I tell our associates at the bank all the time that with the banking industry changing so fast, if we don't have a growth mindset, we probably won't do very well. So how do you think about growth mindset and positivity?

I think they go hand-in-hand. I mean, having the optimism and belief about a brighter and better future really ties into the growth mindset that we're not our circumstances. Our vision is greater than our circumstances. Our optimism and belief is greater than our circumstances.

Yes, we were here yesterday, but here's where we're going now. Yes, we face this challenge. Yes, I'm in this skill set now, but here's where I'm going. Here's where I'm becoming. So I love the growth mindset.

I also believe that we're actually born with a growth mindset. I don't know what her research shows, but I look at a baby who's learning to walk. That baby just continues to walk, I mean, get knocked down, get back up, get knocked down, get back up. Continues to pursue the walking. So I believe it's already in us.

I believe over time the world imposes a fixed mindset. And it's about reminding people of who they are, who they can become, and the growth mindset that they have to become it. I think it's all part of that.

Yeah. No question. So and in your book, The Power of Positive Leadership, you talk about, I think, it's nine imperatives for a positive leader. One of those was, I think, critical about capturing a vision, sharing that vision, and getting people to follow that vision. But that's a pretty hard thing to do, isn't it?

It is hard. And it starts, though, with the leader of where do you want to go, and getting your team together and say, where do we want to go, what is our vision for the road ahead? Because every organization, every team, needs a North Star. They all need something to long for, something to hope for.

As a leader, you're a dealer in hope, sharing hope for the future. Not Pollyanna hope, but here's where we're going and let's work on going there. I think of Alan Mulally of how he turned around Ford. They're losing $14 billion and he turned them around in a few short years. One of the greatest leadership feats in history.

He defined his leadership style as positive leadership. He said everyone had to know the plan, embrace the plan, and relentlessly work towards the plan. And it was the positive leadership that kept on rallying them towards it. Because there was many times where it looked hopeless and a lot of people were very pessimistic.

And I think about one person's vision, one person's positive leadership, saved the lives and saved the jobs, the jobs of 50,000 people at Ford. It's amazing what he did. So I've met people along the way that have read that book and where I shared some of those stories. And like, hey, my dad worked at Ford and my uncle working at Ford. And wow, they thank Alan—you know, they thank him every day for his positive leadership, his vision.

You know, to me, short of faith and family, having an opportunity to work with a group of people toward a shared vision that is, in fact, making the world a better place to be is the most special thing you can find. Because all of a sudden, you're not working. You know, I've been at this now for 46 years and people say, well, Telly, why are you still working? And I say, well, I never have worked.


I love that.

I just get up every day and I enjoy going to be with a group of people, doing something that's worthwhile, and changing the world, and that's very, very exciting.

Yeah. No one creates success alone. We all need a team to be successful. And when you're with a group of people, like you said, and you're working toward something, a shared vision, a greater purpose together, that's what life's all about. We're never meant to be isolated. We really are better together.

Yeah. I was interviewing another outstanding leader recently, a gentleman named Isaac Lidsky who—it's a great story. He became blind, started becoming blind when he was 12 and fully blind by about 20, and hugely successful. But I asked him, I said, you know, how did you get your vision? And he said, you know, I actually have had several visions over the life. And of course, he kind of said, no pun intended.


Because he was blind.


But you've kind of evolved in your vision or your thought about the future, haven't you?

A little bit. My vision has always been to inspire and empower as many people as possible, one person at a time. So that vision remains. It started way back when I first started to do this. I still live that vision every day, but how I do it has changed. Looking for more resources, looking for ways to help people.

It's evolved in how I see what people need and what people are looking for. And I never like do something just to do it. It's always some that comes up, an idea, a thought, someone asking for something, and then a number of people start asking for it, and then I go, OK, maybe we're supposed to do this. So how we live the vision and implement the vision and work towards the vision, that's evolved and changed, but the vision has remained the same.

Now, in your book, The Power of a Positive Team, which is a great book, you talk about how important culture is, but you admit that you wish you had realized how important culture was even earlier in your career. Talk about that.

Well, it started when I was in college. I mean, I played lacrosse at Cornell University and we were ninth in the country my sophomore year. And by the time I was a senior, we had fallen apart as a team. We were a legendary program. We had a legendary coach and we had squandered it. This was the first losing season my coach ever had was my senior year.

And so what I realized was you can lose culture in a moment. That every day you're creating your culture by what you think, by what you say, by what you do. And so it's not static, it's dynamic. So it doesn't matter what your culture was like last year.

What are we doing to create our culture this year? It doesn't matter what it was like last week. What are we doing right now, every day, to create a great culture? So everyone in the team needs to realize that they're creating culture by what they think, say, and do. So you can elevate it by what you think, you can improve it by what you say, you can make it great by what you do.

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