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Are You a Riser or a Sinker?

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Get out your pen or pencil or stylus or charcoal or invisible ink. It’s time for a pop quiz! Please choose the option that best describes you:


a. I try to make the best of a bad situation.

b. I focus on what went wrong to cause a bad situation.


a. I believe that successful leaders are more constructive than critical.

b. I believe that successful leaders are more critical than constructive.


a. Focusing on the worst parts of a job with colleagues is not a healthy form of venting.

b. Focusing on the worst parts of a job with colleagues is a healthy form of venting.


a. The most important part of problem-solving is coming up with a solution.

b. The most important part of problem-solving is pointing out the problem.


a. I need to step up my game for my teammates.

b. My teammates need to step up their game.


a. I find ways to help others in the decision-making process.

b. I doubt the decision-making of the people around me.


a. I believe in working toward a consensus.

b. I believe in persuading others to do what I think is right.


a. I am an optimist.

b. I am a pessimist.


a. I avoid sarcasm when working with others.

b. I use sarcasm to connect with others.


Yup. There’s a theme. If you are choosing mostly a’s, you’re a riser. If you identify more with the b’s, you’re a sinker. Is being a sinker bad? It sounds bad.

What to do with sinkers

You know a sinker. Someone with a negative attitude. A complainer hunting for commiseration. An agent of sabotage, either outspoken or stealthy. A thorn in the rose bush. The troll under the bridge, misunderstood and mistreated. A torpedo aimed to sink the ship.

Before you take a sigh of relief or stop reading—depending on your answers above—a wise man once said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” The truth is, all of us have been or will be a sinker (I’m guilty at least once a day). Even those impossibly positive people who tell you every day is the best day of their life are at some point susceptible to overwhelming negativity.

Sinkers are an unavoidable part of living and doing business—and they are essential. Back in 1917, Freud believed that the melancholy person had “a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic.”

Sinkers will point out brutal facts. In doing so, they provide the opportunity for others to rise. The key is making sure the pool is not filled with sinkers. Otherwise … you can see where the analogy is going.

Great leaders elevate sinkers. Great leaders find a way to move the needle from problem to solving. They recognize that there is a story behind negative energy and that both good and bad things come to an end. They also realize that sometimes the only way to untangle a knotted line is to cut it loose.

Finally, great leaders know when they are sinking. They practice self-care and allow their teammates to be strong in their own moments of weakness.

Fill the pool with risers

The risers are the yang if the sinkers are the yin. Risers exude a contagious optimism, but they also sit with the lone person in the dining hall. Rather than being fixated on or blind to obstacles, they focus their energy and enthusiasm on navigating around or even through the alligator pit.

Whether from the front or the back, no matter the weather, they lead groups forward (and rest or backtrack when required).

Here are some historical examples (in no particular order or rank):

  • The Tank Man in Tiananmen Square

  • Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala.

  • Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

  • Ida B. Wells releasing “Southern Horrors”

  • The passengers of United Airlines Flight 93

Most risers are not immortalized for their actions. Single mothers are among the most impressive and inspiring people in the world, but they don’t get the recognition they deserve­­. Famous or not, true risers are not hellbent on glory and fame. They are neither self-righteous nor self-congratulatory. They are committed to doing the right thing, doing what they can and believing that it can be done.

Whether it be your personal messiah or the kid performing an act of kindness in a viral video, the world needs risers. Rather than believing they are better than others, they make others feel and do better. Others don’t need to sink for them to rise. They understand the concept of synergy. These are the people you want to be around.

I hesitate to say, “Be a riser.” To reiterate the whole “only a Sith deals in absolutes” thing, no one can or should be one thing all of the time. Rising requires making the right choice more often than the wrong one. Ultimately though, it will be those who make the right choice almost all of the time who win the long game.


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