Something To Believe In

My job took me to Philadelphia last week. I had two reasons for being reluctant to go. The first one is that (unless I’m going skiing) I don’t voluntarily travel north of Kernersville, North Carolina between November and April. Unfortunately, I had no choice. But as it turned out, some weird meteorological inversion caused it to be warmer there than in Charlotte, with less snow on the ground. Sometimes you don’t get what you expect.  

The second reason for my reluctance was something that I did not expect to be temporarily inverted, and that was the general unhappiness I anticipated finding there. While this is admittedly both a gross generalization and a bias likely influenced from my own Yankee upbringing, in my experience people just aren’t that happy in Philadelphia. So, hoping for the best but expecting the worst, I prepared myself mentally for what I anticipated—but I didn’t get what I expected.

From the moment I got off the plane, it seemed like every stranger I encountered had just experienced his own personal Scrooge moment and was determined to fight off the Ghost of Christmas Future. From the people in the terminal, to the rent-a-car employees, the desk clerk at the motel and the people at the restaurant where I had dinner, the attitude was the same—happiness. Everybody was happy, or at least seemed to be. Heck, I thought, maybe I’m wrong about this place. Maybe it really is sunny in Philadelphia.

The next morning, I was curious enough about what had inverted Philadelphia’s attitude as profoundly as its weather that I asked the exuberant guy who served me my breakfast bagel about it. He looked at me like was pulling his leg, but sensing that I was sincere he asked, “Don’t you watch the news?”

“Not really,” I replied. “What’s going on?”“The Eagles are in the NFC championship game on Sunday, and we we’re going to win!” He said with a huge grin. “Finally, Philadelphia has something to believe in.” With that, he pointed solemnly to the sky, as if divine providence had at last favored his weary city after a long dry season of discontent. Finally, something to believe in.

Now, reasonable minds can debate whether people’s emotions should be affected so deeply by the fortunes of their professional football team, but that is not the point of this blog post. My point is that emotions of people are deeply affected by events and circumstances that are completely outside of their control, many of them even less consequential than sports. People need something to believe in. Without it, they lose hope and hopeless people are unhappy people.

Leaders know this implicitly from training and experience. If you take over a failing organization there will be many things you have to do change losing into winning. But the first thing you should do is give your followers hope that their circumstance is about to change for the better. If you don’t do that, they will resist every other thing you try to do.

First, before you do anything else, you have to give them something to believe in.

Dave Redding