I’m an optimist. So I’m a little bit biased on this one. But let me share with you why I think optimism is a vital leadership superpower, and how you can strengthen your own optimism without losing sight of reality.
First I’ll share three ways that optimism can help you in your daily life (and the difference between optimism and being unrealistic) and then I’ll provide three specific things you can do to develop your own optimism superpower.
Describe the light at the end of the tunnel…
Individuals attain fulfilment from a sense of growth and progress. Happiness is transitory – fleeting even. But developing personally to be better than you were before can bring genuine fulfilment.
“Progress equals happiness. We’re not supposed to sit at the table of success and just feel good about ourselves forever. What makes us feel alive is growing.” – Tony Robbins
The same is true of organisations. Which are, after all, simply a particular collection of individuals. A leader’s role is to consistently articulate the vision, to remind everyone about what is known of the plan for how to get there, and to celebrate progress.
There will be days – even months – where those around you struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel – they even stop believing it’s a tunnel at all, and instead start to imagine that its a dark pit, leading deeper into the centre of the earth and ever further from the intended destination.
Your optimism allows you to describe a tiny pinprick of light and your team will continue to make progress.
…provided you know it is a tunnel, and not a dead end
For this to be authentic, and realistic, you need to have done your homework. You need to understand the business well, and have a system level view of how the pieces fit together, what assumptions have been made, and what the indicators are that you are on the right track.
Shine your light just once onto a blank dead-end wall and call it the light at the end of the tunnel and you will lose the trust of your people.
Believe in your people…
As a general rule, nobody comes to work with the express intention of doing a poor job. I’ve certainly never met anyone who met this description.
I’ve met plenty of people who misunderstand what their role is. Or who are not clear about what is expected of them. Or who lack the skills and competencies for their job. Or who really don’t want to be working, but have to – for any number of reasons. But never anyone who has deliberately come to work and said “I’m going to do the worst job I can today”.
Optimism allows you to see this for what it is, and to have confidence that everyone can shine with the right support, training, coaching and if they are in a job that suits them well. Instead of slipping into the trap of thinking that you’re surrounded by poor-performers, you can confidently assume they are all doing the best job they can with the tools that they have. Your job is then to help figure out what tools they actually need.
…provided you expect high performance from everyone equally
For this to be authentic and realistic, you cannot use this as an excuse to tolerate sustained poor performance. If someone is not delivering in their role, you need to be actively working on a range of strategies to either equip them with the tools they need, or help them identify the right role for them.
Tolerating sustained poor performance demotivates everyone, including your high performers. You achieve the standards you tolerate.
Consistently find the silver lining…
Sometimes pessimists and realists decry optimism as a flawed character trait because when things go wrong (and they inevitably do) the optimist is going to be so completely blindsided that they cannot cope with the overwhelming disappointment when their world-view comes crashing down around their ears…
But as a proud self-confessed optimist, I can assure you I do not believe that nothing can go wrong – in fact I expect it, and have prepared for it. Instead, I am confident in my ability to learn from the experience and, ultimately, to find something of value from any adversity.
Strengthening your optimism superpower
I have found three main ways to strengthen my ability to be optimistic.
I have talked about meditation in a couple of previous posts. In this context, the primary benefit of meditation is enabling you to be fully present in the moment, and in particular to enable you to bear witness to your thoughts and emotions, without being controlled by them. In other words, meditation will enable you to build an ability to become aware of negative or unhelpful thought patterns as they are emerging, putting you back in control of what you want to think.
If you are not sure where to start, I can highly recommend the Headspace App, but there are plenty of other apps, also books, and community classes if you prefer the personal touch.
Ask empowering questions
There are disempowering questions: “why is this happening to me?” and there are empowering questions: “what can I learn from this experience?”.
Pessimists tend to ruminate longer when negative experiences happen to them, mulling the same events (and their associated emotional responses) round and round in their heads, and reliving it over and over. I am not suggesting that a certain degree of reflection isn’t vital if you are going to learn from the experience, but what I can guarantee is that you cannot go back in time and change it. So you might as well ask yourself some empowering questions and make the most of the situation!
This is about reflecting on your progress, celebrating your successes, but also about recognising the wonderful things that are present in your life right now. Everyday, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, write down three things you are grateful for right now, and why. It could be that you bought a coffee from your local cafe and it was the perfect temperature, and perfectly brewed. It could be that your hat blew off in the wind and a stranger stopped to help you catch it. It could be tiny or major. But feel it as you write about it.
If you build these three things into your self-leadership routine, your optimism superpower will get stronger… there is light at the end of the tunnel – and it isn’t an oncoming train!