Founder, Steve Gladis Leadership Partners

Washington, D.C.

Steve Gladis is the founder of Steve Gladis Leadership Partners, which consults on executive coaching and leadership development. He also is a professor at George Mason University, as well as an author.

Your earlier career included the Marine Corps and FBI. How did you transition to leadership development in the private sector?

The Marine Corps is all about leadership. I was a young lieutenant and ended up in combat, so I learned about leadership pretty quickly. The FBI is sort of the same thing, but with suits rather than uniforms. I was involved with counterterrorism in Washington, D.C.; so, when you're trying to work with a lot of agents at the same time in difficult times, you really learn what people are made of and what you're made of.

At the end of my FBI career, I got involved in teaching leadership and communication at the FBI Academy, which then led me to the University of Virginia. I spent 10 years at UVA running one of its graduate programs and got really interested in the whole idea of the next generation and leadership.

About 10 years ago, I started a company where I train and develop leaders in companies and teams, and I research and write books on leadership.

I do a lot of reading, and I blog about leadership. It's become sort of part of my DNA at this point. But it's hopefully about giving back to the next generation. You want to make sure you leave the place a little bit better than you found it if you can—at least that was what my father taught me.

You're an advocate of appointing a mentor and using outside coaches for onboarding leaders. What's the best way of going about that?

Generally, mentors are internal. They're usually people not in your division, but people who have some pretty good sense of the internal culture, and they're there to keep the onboarding person from hitting the rocks and shoals.

I think mentors need to work along with the executive coach. If you're talking about senior executives, you'd want an external coach—I would not want an internal coach if I was a senior executive.

That's a personal preference, and of course I am an external coach—and have that bias. People who I've dealt with at senior levels generally want somebody who they can let their hair down with. I'm not questioning internal coaches' ethics, but with an external coach, there's not much chance of them—in any way, shape, or form—making the mistake of saying something when they shouldn't or knowing something that they shouldn't.

For example, sometimes senior executives who are coming for coaching will, at the second or third meeting, start talking about an interest in perhaps leaving the organization. That could somehow affect the judgment of an internal coach, or at least it would upset me; whereas an external coach will say,"OK, let's talk about it. Let's walk through it."

I also think that mentors should work directly with coaches in some form or another. They should meet each other and talk with each other in front of the client about how they can best serve the client.

What does positive leadership look like?

Positive leadership is about a leader who's saying yes to life and who's willing to be optimistic; who is realistic, but not a Pollyanna.

The world isn't always rosy. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But positive leaders take people and situations at face value as being positive until proven negative, instead of the other way around. It's like you substitute one set of glasses for another, and the interesting thing about it—and this is based on research—is when you substitute the more optimistic set of glasses, what ends up happening is that it begins to change the way you think.

One thing I find very interesting is research by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania that says that if you're positive, life gets better. There's research that found that people who were in combat, if they were pessimistic before they had a traumatic injury, they got post-traumatic stress disorder; but if they were basically optimistic, positive people, they tended to not get post-traumatic stress and also actually got stronger, amazingly.

I wrote Positive Leadership: The Game Changer at Work, and I've been speaking about that book for almost two years, and I get a lot of great feedback. The interesting part about it is every time I give a presentation on the book, its tenets actually are reinforced for me.

I also keep a gratitude journal. Again, Seligman found that if, at the end of each day, you write down three things that went well, you slept better, you had less anxiety, and it helped you reframe your day.

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And I have an optimism journal that I write in in the morning, projecting what my day's going to be like. The things that I write down in the morning that I'm optimistic about happening almost always happen.

Are there any current projects you're working on?

I'm writing a book on mindfulness. I just started doing the research for that, so that'll be fun. I like to live with these books for a year or two, and they become part of my DNA. I refuse to not do everything I put in my book. In Positive Leadership, the only thing I didn't do that I wrote about was I didn't lose weight. So, I went to Weight Watchers and lost 20 pounds. I try to stay true to what I write as best I can.

So in 2016, I'm going to write something around mindful leadership. I'm seeing this today: People are just running in circles; they're trying to take care of their kids, they're working, they're volunteering, and much more. How do you keep yourself grounded so you don't flip out? I'm really studying it. I'm meditating pretty regularly, and I'm now taking Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at Georgetown, the one founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I'm a big believer that I shouldn't write about stuff I either don't do or wouldn't recommend.

How has your view of leadership evolved in the past five years?

I would say that most of us grew up in what they call a command-and-control environment, where if somebody outranked you, they could tell you what to do, and in general, you did it. That model is still out there. But as the Millennials have come along, I think they're demanding more participation. This generation has been brought up as adults; by that I mean my generation [Baby Boomers] brought them up with the idea that they could talk to adults like real people. So when Millennials enter the workplace, they expect to be talked to like adults, like peers, not to be talked down to or talked around.

As Millennials take up more and more of the work space, the leaders who have only one way of communicating—which is top-down—aren't doing well. It's just a bad fit. We're seeing more of a coaching approach to leadership where it's about helping people solve their own problems and less about giving them the answers; more about teaching them to fish than giving them fish to eat. No question in my mind that that's where leadership is headed—the better leaders will be the coaches and the ones who don't get it won't last.

But I also think for the Millennials, they can't expect every time they come up with an idea that people are going to jump off the side of the mountain for it just because they came up with the idea. Some of them have been told too often that they're the smartest kid in the room and they really aren't. They're not experienced, and so I think that has to be tempered with reality.

What inspires you most about what you do?

I guess it's that I get to help people; in a way, I get to touch the future. I've always thought of teaching as working on the side of angels, doing the right thing. No matter what it paid, to me, it was always the right thing to do. That we all have an obligation to pass on to our kids, and in my case, grandkids, a world that's a little bit better.

I could literally have retired 20 years ago. But to do what? Stay at home? Drive my wife nuts labeling cans in the cupboard or something? That would've ended our marriage pretty quickly.

Instead I formed a company, I went out and had some fun, and I wrote a bunch of books. I hate to go to bed at night sometimes when I'm having so much fun. However, when I get up in the morning all I can think about is that I get a chance to write again today.

Getting up with that kind of energy is what keeps you in the game longer.

There are three things that we found out that drive people. One is, are they satisfied with what they need to get by in life in terms of job, salary, and benefits? Are they socially connected in ways that matter with other people; are they part of a tribe? And third, do they do purposeful work every day? If you have those three things, you pretty much have a good life.

Tell us about the project you've recently wrapped up, Innovative Leadership: Solving the Innovation Equation.

It's almost two years ago now that I started thinking about why some companies are innovative and other companies are not so innovative—what's in the DNA? What makes the innovative companies different? So I started doing as much reading as I could, and I came to the conclusion that you needed to have things like the right kind of people. Not in terms of age or gender or that kind of stuff, but you needed people who needed to be in some form of a motivated atmosphere, a place that nurtured their best selves.

With the help of my daughter Kimberly, who's very analytical, what I came up with is that innovation is talent. By that I mean cognitive diversity, things like engagement and mindset as elements of talent.

If you have talented people who were basically motivated, had a strong culture of innovation and experimentation like Google or Apple, and then you have some kind of dependable, repeatable process, then you can crank out innovation in a fairly regular way. If you're missing any of those three elements—talent, environment, and process—it's like having oxygen but not hydrogen; you're not going to get water. In this case, you have to have all three.