Why Optimism Can Be a Leadership Fatal Flaw
Any strength can become a weakness if you aren't careful
Generations of leaders in both the political and business realms have been influenced by Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. The later book popularized the notion that the way to generate positive outcomes was to, well, think positively. It was touted as a kind of superpower: if you imagine something positive, it will happen. Richard Bach's book, Johnathan Livingston Seagull, posited a similar law of attraction. Negativity should be avoided at all costs.
While there is some real merit to this approach, it's also possible to overuse it. Anything in excess can become a fatal flaw and that includes thinking positively. Believe me, I learned this lesson from personal experience. Let me explain.
As leaders, dealing with bad or negative news is a challenge. No leader likes to share something bad with the team because they fear that it will poison the air and the team's morale. The temptation is to find a way to spin whatever is happening in a positive light. We have all seen a leader trying to make a layoff sound like a great idea or how a massive failure of a product launch wasn't a big deal.
This can be a mistake because we now live in an age of transparency. Everyone will eventually find out the truth of any situation. That puts you, as a leader, in a precarious position--especially if you hide an ugly truth behind something more positive.
When leaders aren't transparent about a situation, two possible outcomes occur:
1. Your people think you just didn't know the truth.
Worse, they might even think you're incompetent for not knowing--especially if they learned about it via a simple Google search. If someone is sitting in a room where they're leader is trying to spin a positive story when the facts are clearly different, they won't think much about that leader.
2. They think you are lying.
The other outcome that results from an overuse of optimism is that people will begin to think you're lying to them. And to some extent, they're right. I have found myself in this situation more than once early in my career. I wanted to show the team that I was positive, so I didn't tell the full truth. But omission is just a form of lying and I found myself conflicted over my ethical standard to tell the truth. In retrospect, I should have always embraced transparency, both good and bad, as the real superpower that enables leaders to build trust with their teams.
The truth is that people often respond in amazing ways when they feel that a leader trusts them with bad news. Often, they appreciate it--and step up their own individual efforts to overcome whatever challenge you're confronting. In other words, you can share bad news without becoming negative. Even more authentic is to share how you feel about the situation, how it makes you mad or upset or ashamed. People like to follow authentic and transparent leaders. It is okay to believe in the future, but you need to acknowledge the present to earn the right. But the more you hide from the truth with a goal of trying to spin the positive, the more you risk losing the confidence of your people.
If you want to build a culture based on trust and performance, learn from my experience. Embrace transparency and don't abuse optimism. Your people will appreciate you more as a result.