Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is Optimism Ever Uncool in a Leader?

Some people get downright grumpy when they walk into a room where everyone looks happy. Or, they become wary. Maybe it’s that such apparent happiness is not a true reflection of life, in general, and certainly not that of a leader or manager. On the contrary it’s often full of one issue after another, too much to do, too little time, too many interruptions and the stress of dealing with the strange behaviours of others. If suddenly faced with smiles and laughter in large quantities all at once, for example, at a cocktail party, a leader might find it difficult to adjust.

What should one do? No one appreciates having their fun dampened or being fooled by hollow happiness. Neither do most of us feel comfortable with a leader who rarely shares her emotions and thoughts or who seems always to look at the world through rose coloured glasses. It can put us on edge and ill at ease in their presence. The conversation may never go beyond the superficial as the dance of unreality keeps the gate to rewarding conversation firmly closed.

What lurks in the background is resonance with reality. Otherwise, optimism is “uncool”. As the emotional intelligence research tells us, a leader’s mood matters. An optimistic attitude is infectious helping others around him see tough situations in a more positive light. The caveat however is this: optimism is better accepted if it is balanced by the right kind and level of truth-telling. In effect, having a better way of explaining bad events than the perennial pessimist builds leadership effectiveness!

If faced with a choice, optimism is a better route to go even if as a manager and leader you have to work hard at not being negative. That means viewing bad events as external rather than personal, temporary rather than permanent and specific not pervasive. The skill of optimism, based in reality, can grow with practice.

One way to demonstrate optimism is through subtle changes in expressions that project more powerfully a positive rather than a negative or weak attitude. Here are some examples from George Walther’s work on “power talking” with the stronger phraseology on the right:

Projecting Positive Expectations:
“I’ll have to.” versus “I’ll be glad to.”
“This is impossible,” versus “This can be done.”

Rebounding Resiliently
“I failed.” versus “I learned.”
“If only I had…” versus “Starting now, I will.”

Accepting Responsibility
“I can’t help it. It’s the other guy’s fault.” versus “It’s my responsibility.”
“This is not practical. It won’t work.” versus “Let’s give it a chance.”

These are not naïve statements but ones full of hope aimed at creating something better and spurring us on to solution-finding actions. They are saying yes to life and no to darkness. This is “cool” for leaders.

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