Leadership Optimism: Dreaming, Denial, or Discovery? #Peopleskills
by Kate Nasser | 8 Comments »
Leadership Optimism: Are You Dreaming, Denying, or Discovering?
Leadership optimism is popular today. Innovation, today’s business buzzword for success, is leadership optimism in action. Believe and conceive what is possible!
Yet, there are still many who see optimism as negative. As I read Optimism May Be Stifling Your Team in the Harvard Business Review, it struck me that the problem is not optimism. The problem is in the definition of leadership optimism!
Is Leadership Optimism:
Dreaming, Denial, or Discovery?
When optimism shuts out reality, it gets the label of dreaming and denial. When combined with reality it moves everyone forward with discovery. Sounds simple, right? Well it’s not so black and white. As a leader, how do you keep optimism real without it reverting to negative, pessimistic, hopeless thinking?
Leadership Optimism: Keeping it Real!
Speak and Engage Feedback.
In the Harvard Business Review article noted above, the leader kept saying to the team: “How hard can it be?” This is not actually an expression of optimism. It is a rhetorical question that indirectly tells the team to follow orders. It also denies the team members’ hard work and thus it not inspirational. Keep leadership optimism real by engaging the team’s ideas and honoring their efforts. “This goal is high. We’ve met remarkable challenges in the past. I believe we can do this. What will it take? What are the challenges. How will we meet them?”
Encourage Healthy Skepticism not Pessimism.
To prevent reality from turning into endless pessimism, illustrate the difference between healthy skepticism and pessimism. Health skepticism raises issues about tough challenges. It encourages diverse discussion and critical thinking. It helps to prevent groupthink. Pessimism is a negative expression of what isn’t possible. It comes across as complaining. It seeks to shut down healthy debate with rigid restatements of what isn’t possible.
Separate Your Fears from the Vision.
Are you afraid the teams will resist and not meet the vision? Do you feel pressure to meet financial goals or the expectations of your boss? All these fears can push you to block reality by dreaming and denying. Identify your fears and remind yourself “It’s a feeling not a fact.” This little statement has the power to keep you upbeat, inspirational, engaging discussion, and leading with true optimism.
Communicate Vision and Listen to Reality.
I witnessed one leader get the label “dreamy-eyed” because all he ever did was communicate new vision and ideas. He drove his leadership team crazy because he wouldn’t allow them time to follow through and implement. In truth, he was not practicing leadership optimism. He was actually indulging his personal preference for constant change. He even admitted to me that he loved change and hated status quo. Envision then listen so all can participate in success.
Optimism and realism nicely co-exist. They are powerful partners. They sustain each other by preventing the extreme of each.
Capture the power of both in communicating:
- Discuss instead of mandate.
- Engage to explore vs. declare to hide.
- Practice patience in listening vs. frustration in fear.
- Honor commitment, efforts, and achievements instead of denying the truth and proclaiming it’s easy.
From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™
Leading Change: Are You Strong Enough Not to Leave Scars?
Optimism & Realism to Be the One to Succeed
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Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.
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Wonderful post, Kate! I think back to a time when I was part of a brand new senior leadership team. The SVP was charged with a dramatic turn around that the team before us was not able to get in motion. His VP team, myself included, wanted to open a dialog with the CEO and COO about 1) What we CAN do 2) Agree on stretch goals that motivate instead of reaching only for “final state” goals that may be unachievable 3) Let’s paint a shared picture of progress and success.
Ultimately, the SVP fell into many of the traps you describe here… pushing for a vision without pushing timelines despite severely constrained resources. His optimism looked to the rest of the team like a shiny pair or rose colored glasses. When he finally was honest about what’s possible, the most senior levels had already lost faith in his optimism and were hatching new plans that didn’t have him in the mix.
Bottom line: optimism, paired with reality, requires honesty too.
Thank you Alli. I love these practical examples that further illustrate the core message of my posts! Yours speaks volumes. As for honesty, you bet! That is one of the strengths of realism, it is chuck full of honesty.
Always grateful for your contributions.
Warmest and best wishes,
Hi Kate, great post – the HBR post also left me shaking my head (though I didn’t write my own rebuttal as you have) 🙂
Asking the rhetorical “how hard can it be…?” question doesn’t show optimism, it simply wraps your doubt with a smile.
For me you nailed it with points 3 & 4 – it’s about vision, and not letting the paralysis of fear stop you from reaching your goal. Reality is a transitive state – meaning that what we see as ‘real’ today, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be ‘real’ tomorrow.
One of my favorite examples of optimism in leadership is from Winston Churchill – German bombs destroying London was the ‘reality’, Churchill’s public display of optimistic defiance kept hope alive. I’m sure he wrestled with the demons of doubt in private, but he and his team worked diligently to create a new reality by forging an alliance with the U.S.
Many thanks for your thoughts and your work,
Great additions Carl. I especially like “reality is a transitive state”. As a result, it is also an inspirational force to keep everything moving with it. I agree with your analogy of Winston Churchill. Optimistic defiance in desperate moments keeps hope alive — when there is action to support that hope. And there was!!
Many thanks for your contribution here … and I love your “Don’t wrap don’t in a smile” missive!
Have a super week,
Kate – so appreciate the nuances you offer in your piece. I’ll take optimism over pessimism anytime. But I like an informed, enlightened, fully explored optimism best. That’s the sort of optimism that transcends positive thinking!
I love your expanded definition “informed, enlightened, **fully explored optimism” — especially the phrase fully explored. I do think it transcends just positive thinking. Fully explored optimism includes the true power of hope even in the darkest hours.
Many thanks for your moving response!
Excellent post Kate. Optimism is not denial of reality. I love the points you have made on discuss rather than instruct, engage to explore. Honor commitments, efforts, encourage.
Being positive is essential but that does not mean running away from reality.
Optimism has to be realistic and not fake it till you make it.
Thought provoking insights on your post.
You summed it up well. “Optimism has to be realistic and not fake it till you make it.” Optimism isn’t denial of reality although many see it that way and that drove me to write this post for discussion.
Grateful for your time and insight here!