Are You An Optimistic Leader: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I. What is an optimistic leader? One of the best illustrations comes from Colin Powell.

Powell says that great leaders know things will get better because they themselves will make them better. The following was drilled into Powell during his military training: “Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger. You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion, but you must never show that you are cold or hot. You may be terrified, but you must never show fear. You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.”

Powell is not an unabashed optimist. He tempers his optimism with logic. “Maybe it can’t be done, but always start out believing it can be done until facts and analysis pile up against it. Don’t surround yourself by skeptics but don’t shut out skeptics who give you solid counterviews.”


Optimism is not about the absence of doubt. It is not about the neglect of reality. It is about one significant driving attitude behind a series of leadership behaviors.

The attitude: A consistent positive approach to situations with the intent of looking for and making positive outcomes happen.

The Behaviors:
1. The willingness to consider an idea or opportunity on its merits
2. The attitude that approaches ideas and opportunities by trying to discern what the positive outcomes are
3. The willingness to listen to multiple viewpoints on “how” to make those outcomes happen before committing to an action
4. Treating others’ viewpoints with openness and dignity
5. Coming up with the best plan to achieve success
6. Assessing risks that could de-rail the approach and planning for them appropriately
7. Making the choice (or recommendation) to proceed based on data, systematic thinking and a cost- benefit assessment
8. When given the order or opportunity to proceed, devoting a 110% effort to success.

In essence optimism and confidence go hand in hand because the optimistic leader has confidence not only in the outcome but that a good plan to get there exists.

II. The Good

“In a survey of 2,175 managers, by CareerBuilder and Harris Poll, 62% say a “negative attitude” and chronic lateness are the main reasons people don’t get tapped for bigger jobs.”

“Job coach Nance Rosen hires people based on their resumes, but promotes them based on their personalities. Talented employees who are pessimistic, doubtful or put their needs before her company’s don’t get far.”

“Research suggests that pessimistic managers may not only plan for the worst, but invite it. Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa, graduates of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the effects of optimistic managers surveyed more than 100 information technology professionals in different individual contributor and managerial roles at The Hanover Insurance Group. They found that optimists do a better job of helping employees reach goals and be more productive.”

A study at the University of Cologne in Germany of more than 1,000 Americans and Europeans found that cynicism may be associated with poverty. The study reported that cynicism demonstrates a person is wary of trusting others. It went on to argue that when you see people in a cynical light — untrustworthy, self-interested and deceitful — you are less likely and less willing to rely on others.
Those in the study who were optimistic and had a more trusting view of others, had higher incomes than the cynics.

“In my five-year study of rich and poor people, 67% of the self-made millionaires said that their optimism was critical to their success in life. Conversely, 78% of the poor in my study admitted to being pessimists. Granted, cynicism and pessimism aren’t quite the same, but they have one major factor in common: negativity.
Cynics don’t like working with others, don’t trust others and, as a result, they are left without any team to help them pull the cart. They prefer to go it alone… Cynics push away the very people they need and are left with no choice but to rely on themselves.”

Optimistic Leaders Behave Differently
It is not just a bubbly personality or sunny disposition that makes the optimistic leader different. They actually look at and approach the world in a different way.The half-full attitude of the optimistic leader is seen in th foloowing ways:

1. View Things Differently
o Optimistic leaders look for opportunities
o Optimistic leaders look for what can be
o Optimistic leaders integrate realism into their optimism
2. Are Genuine
o Optimistic leaders believe in others and in possibilities
o Optimistic leaders have learned to distinguish convictions from preferences
o Optimistic leaders don’t like failure but accept it and use it as a part of the process
3. Think Outside the Box
o Optimistic leaders search for solutions
o Optimistic leaders view obstacles, barriers and failures as problems that cannot be allowed to continue
o Optimistic leaders are open to new thinking
4. Impact Others
o Optimistic leaders are inspiring in the belief that success is possible
o Optimistic leaders are both magnetic and contagious
o Optimistic leader’s attitude inspires enthusiasm and effort
5. Impact The Environment
o Optimistic leaders create an atmosphere in which innovation and engagement flourish
o Optimistic leaders build networks between people
o Optimistic leaders breakdown the silo mentality
6. Want to see individual and organizational growth

III. The Bad: Can A Leader Be Too Optimistic?

Consider the following insights from Gallup:

“ Over the past decade, scientists have explored the impact of positive-to-negative interaction ratios in our work and personal life. And they have found that this ratio can be used to predict — with remarkable accuracy — everything from workplace performance to divorce.

This work began with noted psychologist John Gottman’s exploration of positive-to-negative ratios in marriages. Using a 5:1 ratio, which Gottman dubbed “the magic ratio,” he and his colleagues predicted whether 700 newlywed couples would stay together or divorce by scoring their positive and negative interactions in one 15-minute conversation between each husband and wife. Ten years later, the follow-up revealed that they had predicted divorce with 94% accuracy.

So what is the optimal positive-to-negative ratio in organizations? A recent study by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and mathematician Marcial Losada found that work teams with a PNR greater than 3:1 were significantly more productive than workgroups that did not reach this ratio.

Positive emotions, however, need to be grounded in reality: Their research also uncovered an upper limit for positive-to-negative ratios of 13:1. When workgroups exceed that PNR, things are likely to worsen; completely blind optimism can be counterproductive — and downright annoying.”

Optimism divorced from reality is not believable. The proof of the optimistic leader is ultimately in execution and this is where the optimistic leader’s staff encounter problem and difficulties. The optimistic leader couples their attitude that a solution can be found with the act of rolling up their sleeves to help find it. Ultimately, optimism without movement creates the belief that possibility is just talk and that is the point that the leader begins to lose credibility.

The Ugly: Optimists Who Are Stretched Too Thin Cease Being Optimists

Optimistic leaders can be their own worst enemies if the do not learn to assess and live within their performance capacities. The optimistic leader does not like to say “no” and as a result, there can be significant demands on their time and energy. These demands create stress that can change the optimistic leader’s outlook because the leader cannot give the time and attention to thinking through a situation before they have to commit. Consider the following research study:

“Optimism doesn’t always equip people for long-term stresses. This was shown in a 2006 study of law students carried out by Suzanne Segerstrom of the University of Kentucky. The immune responses of optimistic and pessimistic students were compared when they were operating under high and low demands for their time and energy. Normally, optimists tend to perceive less stress because either they are better able to cope or because they see the world with rosier glasses. However, when demands become ultra severe, the optimists suffered a lower immune response than pessimists.”

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