Few things are as entertaining as watching a child enjoy a summer day. Kids love summer for good reason: They get a break from school, lots of sunshine, time with friends, and a chance to play. For many children, summer is the definition of joy.
Unlike kids, most adults don’t have the luxury of free summers. In today’s fast-paced and increasingly connected world, there is always work to be done—regardless of the season. Since we spend the majority of our time engaged in work, it is essential that our jobs be both meaningful and joyful.
Too often, leaders spend their time solely focused on tasks, and they lose sight of the potential for fun. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Ask yourself: Do you find joy in your job? And do you help others to do the same?
It’s worth pursuing this line of inquiry. Studies show that people who enjoy what they do tend to be happier, more engaged, more efficient, more productive, and easier to work with. So it is imperative that we operate with joy in mind—both for ourselves and for others. Rather than accept that our most carefree days are behind us, we can try to capture the spirit of a childhood summer in our day-to-day leadership life.
Finding Joy in Leading
It’s undeniable: Work is one of the most important aspects of our lives. And when things are important, we tend to take them seriously—as we should. But too often, we associate excellence with seriousness alone, eschewing the more pleasurable parts of leadership.
However, taking things seriously shouldn’t mean depriving ourselves of joy. Some of the most important things in life can also be the most delightful—things like camaraderie and collaboration. Any sports coach knows that chemistry is just as important as running drills or memorizing plays. If teammates don’t get along, communicate well, and have fun, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to come together to achieve their shared goals.
The same is true for any group that works together. If the sole focus of a group is completing tasks, with little room for jubilation, that group might get everything done in the short-term, but their ability to deliver long-term will suffer. To lead high-performance teams, you can’t ignore the creativity, passion, and excitement that comes with prioritizing joy in the work.
The upside is huge when leaders support a joyful workplace: When people feel they can be authentic and vulnerable, when they feel confident that they can trust their peers and leaders, and when they enjoy their work environment, they will thrive—and so will you.
So how can you find joy in your job and help others to do the same? Here are 3 steps to consider.
3 Steps to Leading with Joy
1.Take care of yourself first
As the leader, your stress is often palpable. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pressed for time, or grumpy, your colleagues will feel it too. This type of tension makes everything more difficult. Projects take longer and meetings become less effective because everyone is walking on eggshells.
It’s important to remember that joy starts with you. Of course, leaders are people too—you’re entitled to your bad days. But it’s important to focus on your own well-being, to ensure one bad day doesn’t turn into your entire personality. How will you be able to improve morale if you’re a perpetual grouch? It’s difficult to help others thrive if you’re underwater yourself.
As the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” When you prioritize your own health and happiness, you are better able to help others because you have the strength and resolve to show up for people when they need you most. Therefore, it is essential to find ways to keep your “cup” full.
Strategies for keeping your cup full might include making sure you get enough sleep, exercising, meditating, planning ahead, delegating tasks, increasing transparency, declaring your intentions, self-reflection, and more. It will look different for each person. But the core principle is the same: Focus on yourself and growing your happiness first. As you do this, you will find more glee in your work and in your interactions with others.
Optimism is contagious. Just like stress can spread, so can delight. If you can create balance in your life that allows you to operate with joie de vivre at work, everyone around you will be better for it.
2.Don’t wait for “summer,” find joy in the journey now
Just as children eagerly await summer, we too often live for the future. It’s easy to get caught up in looking ahead, waiting for the next big milestone or event before we let ourselves enjoy the present moment.
Phrases like: “Once I get this promotion…,” “Once my team hits this benchmark…,” “Once we reach our goal…,” “Once I master this skill…,” are all too common and can keep us from recognizing how much we already have to be thankful for in the here-and-now. But we don’t have to wait to begin delighting in our leadership work. It is a powerful practice to find joy throughout every step of our leadership journey—not just in moments of accomplishment or planned celebration.
As leaders, we often experience vicarious joy when we see others succeed, grow, and achieve. But how often do we think about creating joy as we lead? You shouldn’t have to wait to hit your numbers to celebrate, experience small bursts of fulfillment, or have fun.
Try to find opportunities to lift morale along the way, not just at the end of a project or quarter, but in between, as the team works towards the bigger goals. When you lead with an orientation towards the present moment, you remember that the journey is indeed the destination, and you’re able to find satisfaction on a daily basis—and inspire others to live more fully in the moment, too.
What small thing can you do tomorrow to help people feel recognized and to celebrate others? Maybe it’s writing a thank you note, or clearing space on your calendar for a check-in with a treasured employee.
Look for opportunities in small moments to infuse joy. People want to work in an environment that is uplifting—not just occasionally, but consistently. This is best achieved by looking for moments of impact every day.
3. Be the fun (model the behavior)
You can likely recall a few people who you loved working with (as well as a few who were less pleasant). What do the people you remember fondly have in common? Often, the people we love to work with are not just responsible, industrious, inspiring, and reliable, but they’re also a pleasure to be around: They’re easy to talk to, they’re approachable, they’re authentic.
Many leaders feel that they always need to be “on,” constantly helping people stay focused, projecting a veneer of self-seriousness, and never letting their guard down. However, it’s the leaders who are real with their team, who aren’t afraid to be themselves and to have fun, who are the most effective.
If you are too focused on appearing stern and serious, you may come across as robotic, and your interactions might feel transactional. Whereas if you show some vulnerability and a little sense of humor, you open the door for true connection, which leads to deeper engagement, higher levels of trust, and more overall enjoyment.
As the leader, you set the tone. By being fun, you can create fun—with intention. You can find opportunities in everyday interactions as well as in planned, organized events. The key is to behave with purpose: Be the ringleader. Become your team’s cheerleader, lift the mood, create the convivial atmosphere you desire.
This doesn’t mean you need to pretend to be someone you’re not. No one is expecting you to become a stand-up comedian or to develop an affectation. It’s about finding ways to elevate the working conditions in a way that feels right for you.
As you work to create a lively environment, stay close to your team and listen to feedback. Tailor your fun-making efforts to those around you, finding things that will be meaningful to everyone. Lean into your strengths and model the behavior of finding joy in the journey. As you do, people will instinctively mirror your behavior, which will contribute to a culture that allows everyone to thrive.
Even if your work is serious, you can find jubilance in your leadership and in helping others to do the same. If you don’t hold a formal leadership position, you can still intentionally create a merrier environment for you and your colleagues. Start today by taking care of yourself first, finding joy in the journey, and modeling the behavior.
About the Author: McKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire
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