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Pessimism or Optimism: Are These the Only Choices?

Is The Glass Half Empty Or Half Full Question On A Slate Blackboard With A White Chalk And A Stack Of Books Against Rustic Wooden Table

When my nephew was a little guy (maybe 4 or 5 years old) we got into an interesting conversation about what he could learn from people in his life.

According to Gabe, he could learn sports from Uncle Ron, computer skills from his dad, and “learning strategies” from his mom (his mom is a teacher).

When I asked him what he might learn from me, he did not miss a beat…

“Positivity!” he exclaimed.

I guess even a little kid can figure out where I fall on the glass half empty or half full question.

Which brings me to optimism at work…I think optimism in leadership gets a bad rap.

Sometimes that bad impression is unfortunately well-deserved. When optimism is not grounded in realistic assessment, things don’t go well.

We all know of revenue forecasts that were grossly over-stated, anticipated market segments that never materialized, or serious product problems that did not get solved in time.

Blindly optimistic leaders too often end up over-promising and under-delivering, if not failing altogether.

But optimism has a very important place in leadership, especially when paired with ruthless realism in the assessment of challenges. I call this pragmatic optimism.

Others have also used this term, although in slightly different ways. To me, pragmatic optimism is about not seeing the world as some unrealistic, perfect utopia. It is about carefully examining the situation for what it is, warts and all, while simultaneously holding the belief that every problem is solvable.

Everything is figureoutable. (Marie Forleo)

Here are just a few reasons why leaders should develop their pragmatic optimism muscle:

1. Optimism is future facing

When confronted with a big problem, it is easy for pessimistic leaders to become stuck. Because they can only see the bad outcomes that could come from any actions they may take, they get mired in the obstacles and struggle to find the courage to take steps forward.

The pessimistic leader has difficulty seeing a better future and therefore remains frozen in the status quo.

What their organization sees is a leader who cannot make decisions or take action.

When you approach a problem with pragmatic optimism, you are ruthlessly realistic about the situation you face. But you also have the confidence to know that no matter how bad the situation is, an acceptable outcome can be reached.

With confidence, you will be more likely to take the necessary actions and move toward resolution. You may have to pivot as you progress and learn more. That’s OK. You will continue to steer your organization toward successful resolution.

What your organization sees is a leader who is smart, confident, and unafraid.

2. Optimism is solution oriented

Pessimistic leaders are quick to shoot down ideas and jump to reasons why any and all suggestions will not work. They focus more on the obstacles than on the solutions.

They are very quick with the “yeah-buts.”

“Yeah, but that won’t work because of this obstacle and that obstacle…”

With pragmatic optimism, you actively seek solutions and remain open to the possibility of multiple options. You consider new ideas before shooting them down, even when they sound fair-fetched at first.

Instead of immediately jumping to “That won’t work”, you first ask yourself, “In what ways could this work?”

You may choose to not adopt the initial proposal, but by considering it, you will very likely get to even better ideas. This is why optimistic people tend to discover more opportunities than pessimistic people.

A note regarding “far-fetched” solutions: sometimes far-fetched solutions are just what are needed to get through an extremely difficult challenge. At the very least, far-fetched ideas can get the juices flowing for other, even better, ideas.

3. Optimism is inspirational

Seriously, who wants to follow a pessimist? If a leader cannot believe in a better future, why in the world would employees want to follow them…and to where?

People are not usually thinking, “Yay! Sign me up! I want to be led to a crappy future!”

As a pragmatic optimist, you are able to envision a better future and effectively communicate that vision to your organization.

You honestly acknowledge the challenges of today, you share your clear vision for a better future, and you inspire your people to join you in working to get there.

The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. (John Gardner)

If you aren’t using it already, give pragmatic optimism a try.

Learn as much as you can about your current challenge – dissect the heck out of it. Stay open to possibilities and options – really consider them. Be on the lookout for crazy ideas that spawn breakthrough thinking. Take action and learn more.

And KNOW that you and your team will eventually figure it out.

I know you will.

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