I’ve never been sure if optimism is caused by nature or nurture. After observing my children, and talking to other parents, I am inclined to believe optimism is genetic. Many people consider this dichotomy to be either a “half full or half empty” view of the world.
I am blessed with the “half-full gene,” and have found that many other accomplished people tend to have it, too; however, it is not a universal truth. I have also known successful “half-empty gene” leaders, as long as they understand their disposition, and surround themselves with teammates who are upbeat. They succeed by creating balance and democratic decision input.
Part of the reason I believe that optimists are often more successful than the “half-empty” personality, is that they can more easily attract quality talent and heighten morale—people want to work with someone who has confidence in success. Employees seek to feel good, and the subsequent self-confidence from positive leadership increases the odds of them fulfilling their personal goals.
Leaders who view things as “half-empty” tend to avoid taking risks, which creates insecurity. They need much more data and facts to be convinced of a situation, which slows the entire team. Further, employees find it hard to get excited about working for a pessimist, as it constantly puts them on the defensive.
Regardless of disposition, bad things happen to everyone at some point or another. I can still clearly recall the most emotionally devastating event in my career:
When I was operating a small unit, a key person left without warning, to join a competitor. To me, it was a very loud statement that they would rather trust their career in a group of strangers rather than the people they had worked with for so long.
What a message to absorb when I thought everyone was loyal to a vision!
At that point, I had to dig into my soul and find the strength to determine and exude the silver lining of the situation. As the leader, everyone was looking to me, considering the obvious message that employee was sending by leaving. My optimism was tested, which is why I decided to avoid reacting immediately. Instead, I took some time to gather myself, and returned with a positive energy. In my “silver lining pitch,” I conveyed that this unfortunate circumstance was actually a great opportunity to promote someone more closely aligned with our strategy. My response was not to blame or denigrate the person who was leaving—we even planned a nice departure party. But following the party, we shifted our attitudes and expressed excitement about the future of the opened position. It was amazing to see the affect a little optimism had on my entire team. This set the standard of how I would act as a leader in future roles.
Optimism is infectious and highly motivating, but if results don’t match the optimism; people start sensing that optimism is actually delusion. A delusional image is hard to come back from when it comes to personal credibility. Think about the optimistic football coach who claims the team is on the edge of success all season, but finishes with a 0 and 13 record. At about the 0 and 6 point of the season, the players and supporters start to question his judgment. You can’t hide your record!
For business operations, if an optimistic leader broadcasts that the company is on the edge of success when there is nothing to support that theory, it delays change and the necessary actions to “right the ship.” Leaders struggling with delusional optimism often justify disappointing results by blaming external factors or comparing the company to worse-off competitors. This behavior is never sustainable.
Optimistic leaders start with a tremendous advantage, and are very successful if they can also see things as they are, not just what they would like them to be. Like every virtue taken to its extreme, optimism can be an organization’s worst enemy when it does not align with actual competitive posture.
Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, be aware that your leadership temperament affects others, which sometimes requires digging deep and setting your emotions aside. Remember that your employees are always observing your attitude. Finally, you should take your disposition type into account when building your team in order to create balance.
© 2016 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.