Leadership Lessons: 10 Secrets to a More Positive Workplace

Nov. 1, 2018
David Griffin says it's time to shelve the negativity and make our work look more fun for aspiring leaders.

I recently completed my fourth year of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program at the National Fire Academy with some great leaders in our profession. We were lucky enough to have different levels of rank in the class, from fire chiefs of large organizations to assistant and battalion chiefs and, thankfully, captains, too.

At the end of the class, we each had to stand and say a few words about what we learned in the class. Everyone had such great advice but one comment really stuck out to me. A captain from the northwest, who has such a great personality and leadership skills, really made me think.

I will paraphrase here because I don’t have his exact words, but he basically said, “I don’t know if I want to move to the next level. Being in this class and watching all of the chiefs and listening to the stories, I saw that you do not make those positions look like very much fun. I just don’t know if it’s worth it to move to the next level if I have to become unhappy with my work or become a different person. I like my position, I like the work that I do, so why would I move to another position just for some crossed bugles? You guys make your jobs look miserable and I don’t want that.”

Those few minutes of him speaking hit me hard, as I am currently making that transition from captain to battalion chief. What I have already seen and felt is that there certainly is a difference. I’m going to be brutally honest with you: This has been a difficult adjustment for me over these last few months. And to consider that if that captain, who would be an incredible battalion chief, doesn’t want to promote, then who is going to promote in his place? Will it be someone doing so just for the rank and power? 

So my question to you is this: Why do we as leaders find it difficult to present more positive sides of our job? Just because we are in very serious and stressful positions doesn’t mean we need to walk around with a frown on our faces all the time like the world is imploding on us. Of course, there are times when serious issues arise, and we must have serious conversations while exhibiting the utmost professionalism. But we must always make sure we do so with kindness and dignity, never berating someone, as that is going to make the situation worse. Like Chief Alan Brunacini said, “Be nice.” Taking this a step further, it’s important to ask ourselves, why can’t we make our positions look more fun and smile more, as our reactions and emotions undoubtedly make an impact on our team members. 

10 secrets of happy and successful leaders

One of my mantras is “Don’t bring negativity into my positive world.” We all know people who like to throw rocks at shiny things. News flash, leaders: You are a shiny thing. Rocks will be thrown at you. How do the most successful leaders take the rocks but continue with a happy and positive outlook on life? According to Lolly Daskal, president and CEO of Lead from Within, there are 10 secrets of happy and successful leaders:

1. Their life has purpose and meaning

This is a major component to happiness. What’s your purpose and why do you do what you do?

2. They concentrate on positive thoughts

I’m not saying to walk around all day with a fake smile. I’m saying be genuine and true with people in a positive manner. Some of the best leaders I have worked under had this characteristic, and it made a room light up when they walked in. Ask yourself, when you walk into a meeting, does your charisma light up the room or does it dull the environment?

3. They judge their wins and failures the same

Don’t get too connected to wins and losses. Some of the best leaders experienced many losses before they figured it out. Also, don’t get too high when you win. A nice even keel will allow you to make decisions based on the facts, rather than the fear of losing or the joy of winning. Remember, it’s not who’s right, it’s what’s right.

4. They prioritize what's important

When items are stacking up and you feel the happiness turning into stress because of the amount of work you have, make a list and prioritize. It’s always better to write it down to see what you’re dealing with. In my experience, when you write it down, many times it’s not as bad as you thought once you see it on paper. However, sometimes that list will be long and extremely hard. Again, smile. Life could always be worse.

5. They don't compare themselves with others

Comparing yourself to others will only make you miserable. Be happy for people who are doing well. Don’t be upset at them because they’re successful. Stop worrying about other people. You’ll be much happier and a more effective leader.

6. They cultivate meaningful relationships

This is huge. If your team does not have a relationship with you, you do not have a team. You have a group of people listening to what you say because of your badge, not because of your caring attitude or willingness to help them.

7. They invest in diversity

Successful leaders focus on more than just the work they do. They focus on their family, their health, their work/life balance, and how all of that can lead them to reach their hopes and dreams, but also how they can help their team members reach their goals as well. 

8. They're constantly growing

As leaders, we expect our personnel to continue to learn new skills, so why do we think we’re any different? We must continue to learn about our people, their needs, and how we can better serve them. We do this by staying connected with them and by us learning from other organizations, taking courses, going to professional conferences, and staying current. 

9. They do what they say they're going to do

Now this one is very important to me. Don’t say you’re going to do something just to get someone off your back or out of the conversation. Actually do it. If it causes you to do more work, oh well. You’re there for your people. It’s not the other way around.

10. They believe in themselves

As a leader, you must have the belief and confidence in your abilities both of what you know and what you don’t know. If you don’t know the answer to a question, here’s the answer: “I don’t know.” Why do we think we have to know everything? We don’t, so get over it and be honest about it. You’ll be much happier and more effective.            

Put a smile on your face

Those 10 small steps can and will make you a more effective, happy and successful leader. It may even make your job more fun. It’s not easy to always have a smile on your face. I get it. We never know what someone else is going through. However, if your smile can bring a brief moment of joy or light to that person, you may have been exactly what they needed. I believe we must stay focused on what is important and save tough conversations or attitude for times when serious situations arise. But why can’t we have that with dignity and respect of other people?

A chief once said something that really stuck with me: “Why do we treat people on the street better than we treat each other on the job?” That’s pretty powerful. Maybe that has something to do with why our job doesn’t look fun. Maybe we’re too worried about everyone else and passing judgment on them instead of focusing on what WE can do to be better. I don’t know. But I will say this: Put a smile on your face, stop acting like the world is coming to an end, and “be nice.” Life is too short and fragile. It doesn’t matter how many years you have on the job, how many bugles you have, how many degrees you’ve completed, or how many fires you’ve been to. It matters how you treat people and how they respond to you. We are building our future leaders with how we handle ourselves each and every day. 

Think back to that captain who didn’t want to move up because of how miserable we make being a chief appear to be. We could lose a future fire chief who would be great because of what WE did—the image we portrayed of the job. So, remember, don’t let negativity in your positive world, people like to throw rocks at shiny things, and finally, as Chief Bruno said, “Be nice.” That may even mean putting a smile on your face. Go ahead, try it. You’ll feel better.


Daskal, L. “10 Amazing Secrets of Happy and Successful Leaders.” 2015. inc.com/lolly-daskal/10-secretive-habits-of-happy-leaders.html.  

About the Author

David Griffin

Dr. David Griffin is the assistant chief of administration in Charleston, SC. He was the operator of the first-due engine on June 18, 2007, when nine of his fellow firefighters perished. Griffin has come through the ranks in operations in every uniformed position, from firefighter to battalion chief and shift commander to his current position, during his 19-year career in Charleston. He has a bachelor's degree in education from The Citadel, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctorate of education in organizational leadership and development. Griffin is the author of "In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy," among three other books. He is an international speaker and instructor, a certified Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer with The Center for Public Safety Excellence, an IFSAC/Pro Board-certified Fire Officer IV and a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program from the National Fire Academy. He is a graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Executive Education program: Senior Executives in State and Local Government and of the Psychology of Leadership program at Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business. Griffin is the owner of On A Mission, LLC, at drdavidgriffin.com.    

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