quarter 2




In the last year, I started following the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program on Twitter (@WFLeaders.) I really like what the organization is doing in the Twittersphere, including regularly posting thought-provoking questions for followers. A few months ago, @WFLeaders posed a three-part question that caught my attention and got me thinking, in part because it was so different from conventional leadership fare. The post asked “What brought you joy today? This week? This month?”  

Joy, by definition, is a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. These days I derive most of my joy on skis, in the river, on my bike, and hanging with good people. But what about work? The average person spends 90,000 hours, one-third of a lifetime for many folks, at work. If we are going to spend that much time at work, we better derive joy from it. 

As I reflected on the post, I realized that in my last job, while much of what I did brought me satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, just three things brought me joy: those moments when I thought I had been the best leader I could be; when I helped others become the best leaders they could be; and when I genuinely connected with people in ways that allowed us to exchange positive energy, build trust, and form lasting bonds. 

That’s me, but people derive joy from their work in many ways, and I encourage readers to engage in the thought exercise posed by @WFLeaders; it challenges you to focus for a little while on what is good about that one-third of your life that you spend away from family, pets, recreation, hobbies and other passions that bring you joy. 

There is good evidence to suggest that when you know what brings you joy and can tap into it, you can shift your focus and the way you think, making it more likely that you will bring a positive perspective to your work. As I pondered the three-part question, I realized that experiencing joy at work puts me at ease, improves my mood, and allows me to have a positive perception of happenings around me. Research also suggests that incorporating joy into your work life will help you recover from stress, solve problems, and maintain good health and well-being. When you put all those things together, when you take time to notice your own joy and draw strength from it, you contribute to a great foundation from which you can lead effectively.

Since the @WFLeaders post sparked my curiosity, I have been reading about the relationship between joy and leadership. I have concluded that by thinking about their own joy and tapping into their knowledge, leaders can show up ready to cultivate joy in others and use that to better energize peoples’ motivation. I recommend that leaders take a quiet, private half-hour for self-reflection and ask “What brought me joy today? This week? This month?” Then take it a step further, and ask “What am I grateful for?” Write it all down. Think about how that knowledge can influence your leadership.

Why? Through this exercise, we can overcome that very human tendency to let our negative emotions roam free and, when stressed, to run things through the negativity filter, focusing on feelings of anger, resentment, disappointment, or frustration. By taking time to shift perspective, we can remind ourselves that we likely derive joy from our work, that we chose to do what we do for a reason, that we draw energy from it. That change in perspective can enable us to show up more at ease, more content with our lives, ready to recognize moments of joy, and feeling safe and secure – happier, healthier, more positive, more satisfied, more kind, ready to lead as effectively as we can.

The average person spends 90,000 hours, one-third of a lifetime for many folks, at work. If we are going to spend that much time at work, we better derive joy from it. 

Since joy and happiness are so closely linked, I want to offer some happiness related resources. A few years ago, a good friend and colleague introduced me to the work of happiness researcher and bestselling author Shawn Achor, whose presentation The happy secret to better work at TedX Bloomington remains one of the 25 most popular Ted Talks of all time. I recommend it. Also in the Ted Talk top 25 is Robert Waldinger’s What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. Waldinger is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. 

Indulge me in a bit of tough love. Happiness at work is important. Joy at work is important. Happy leaders are better leaders. If on reflection, you conclude that your work brings too little joy and you do not believe you can change that, find something else to do or somewhere else to do what you love. Life is too short to spend one-third of it doing something that does not, from time-to-time, bring you a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. 

Happiness, joy and effective leadership are closely linked. Through the @WFLeaders exercise and my reading, I recently realized that when I feel as if I am leading as well as I can, I experience joy. But which is the chicken and which is the egg? I do not know, but I need to be open to the possibility that recognizing moments of joy and drawing on them for strength allows me to lead with courage, purpose and connection. 


Mike DeGrosky is the former chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow DeGrosky on Twitter @guidegroup, or via LinkedIn.