Leadership: the importance of being optimistic and the pitfalls


There are two emotional intelligence concepts that are critical to awareness when working with clients on developing an authentic positive climate within their organizations: optimism and attributional style.

The importance of being optimistic and the pitfalls

A large body of research by Martin E.P. Seligman, a Pennsylvania psychologist, was put forth to the business world in 1990 in his landmark book, Learned Optimism. Just about everyone who has a propensity to be optimistic in their worldview tends to have greater success, better health, and longer life. They experience an enhanced quality of life that transfers to those around them. CEOs and leaders naturally skilled in optimism are often visionaries who inspire others through their ideas and positive enthusiasm.

There have been enough corporate scandals in recent times to create healthy skepticism towards optimism. CEOs who project a Pollyanna-ish view that everything’s rosy in the corporation are not necessarily wise or nor effective, and definitely not authentic. Rather, an authentic leader speaks openly and frankly, with realism. When a leader is able to resonate honestly with those he or she leads, he or she can then point out a positive perspective or path available. Leading with optimism, and projecting it for others to adopt, is meant to be done in a realistic manner. 

Optimism is necessary when motivating employees. However, optimism without a reality check is dangerous when planning and forecasting. Realism is key when making decisions and committing large sums of money. An important article "Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions" in Harvard Business Review (July 2003) underlines the dangers of “over-optimism” in corporate planning (Kahneman & Lovallo). An overly optimistic CFO could mean disaster for a company, just as a lack of optimism could undermine the visionary qualities essential for superior R & D and sales forces. Optimism, as part of one’s emotional intelligence, is a competency that can be learned, practised, and acquired.

Attributional style: The key to developing realistic optimism

The key to developing the capacity for realistic optimism lies in one’s attributional or explanatory style: the way one explains good or bad events. Everyone has a habitual way of explaining events or attributing causes. This usually happens in split seconds, often without conscious awareness. 

Moving forward in this series on the art of positive emotions in the workplace, our next post will provide additional awareness of attributional style. Simply put, optimists and pessimists differ in that they explain life events differently. For insight on your attributional style, you can take the Optimism Test at www.authentichappiness.org.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. We are interested in starting a conversation about the value we can bring to your organization. We help leaders to be effective by recognizing and utilizing their competencies while adapting their behaviour in situations that require a different approach. Our clients become aware of their particular way-of-leading by participating in various assessments: Emotional Intelligence, Emergenetics, and the Emerson Suite 3D Personal Profile for leadership and management effectiveness.

Contact Patricia Muir at patricia@maestroquality.com, at 416-804-4383, on LinkedInMaestro’s FacebookTwitter.

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Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images