Dictionary.com defines optimism as:

A disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”

Lately I’m finding optimism everywhere! I’m reading the book Leadership by Retired General Rick Hillier (Canadian Armed Forces). This book has a chapter titled “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier”.

So how important is optimism? I think it’s actually very important, especially when you’re leading a team. It’s important the leader of a team is portraying the right attitude and the right behaviours. There is plenty of evidence pointing to the impact a positive attitude can have on people. General Rick Hillier knew the importance in 2007 when Canada lost 6 soliders in Afganistan on one day. He knew the importance of the leaders portraying the right attitude when going out to face the people. This doesn’t mean they were happy, it just meant they needed to show people despite this tragic loss the future is still positive.

The problem I bump into at times is when people believe being optimistic is all you really need to succeed. Somehow things will just work out by themselves. A famous example of misplaced optimism happened in 1916 at the Battle of Somme (World War I). British General Haig asked the famous question “What could possibly go wrong?”. As a result of this optimism the British troops were led to believe this would be a stroll across no-mans land to the German trenches. The result … more than 60,000 lost their lives in a matter of a few hours. The optimism led to a flawed plan, weak tactics, and troops unprepared for what was about to happen.

In business portraying an optimistic game face is important for leaders. It shows numerous things to your people such as:

  • Addressing the issues is an important activity and the right thing to do
  • You are taking responsibility for working issues through to completion
  • Doing an appropriate amount of risk planning is critical
  • There are no problems you cannot overcome as a team (and yes I believe this)
  • And likely the most important is creating a positive fun environment at work

However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t provide the leadership and management needed. It doesn’t matter what methodology you use, or what your organization produces. You need to ensure your optimism is balanced with an effective level of planning for the things which could go wrong. In other words, you need to do a good job of managing the risks and issues your projects face.

Just to balance this story … it’s also important for leaders to not be overly pessimistic. At one company I’ve visited they have a manager who is continually pessimistic. When faced with poor results or issues he’s very quick to lay blame or simply say how the team sucks (yes he actually says that). The infection which has resulted from this behaviour is team members have stopped caring about results. The message they continually hear is how it’s a lost cause and it’s not worth the effort to try and do it better. So this one manager’s pessimistic attitude has turned the whole team pessimistic setting this organization on a dangerous path!

Find the middle ground! Have an optimistic attitude, but make sure it doesn’t get in the way of providing the leadership and management required to succeed!

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