After running a strategic session with one of my clients last year, I got into a cab bound for the airport along with one of the attendees. As I searched for my seatbelt in the tangle of belts in the back seat I noticed that my fellow passenger was not wearing her seatbelt. I asked her if she could not find her belt and she replied, “Nope, I don’t wear them in taxis, I’m an optimist.” That’s not optimism. That’s insanity! This was Paris in the rush hour anything can happen! Optimism is good for many things, but it will definitely not keep other cars from hitting you, nor keep you from flying through the windshield.
Throughout my life I have often been ‘accused’ of being an optimist (as if it were a crime), always looking on the bright side and seeking the best outcome possible. I used to have little time for pessimists, scorning their ability to predict doom and celebrate when doom occurs, sure in the knowledge they can say ‘I told you so’. As I have got older and hopefully a bit wiser I have began to recognise that pessimists have their uses. They can inject a healthy dose of realism into flights of fancy and help in sharpening the thinking when risks are to be identified and contigencies planned for. I believe it is worth becoming, what Shawn Achor the author of ‘The Happiness Advantage’ calls, a ‘rational optimist’. One who does not sugar coat the reality of the current situation but takes into account how others feel about the situation before offering hope about the future.
In essence I believe hope is the missing ingredient we need in life not optimism. For leaders in particular, this is an interesting distinction to make. I was listening to an episode of ‘pause for thought’ on the BBC radio early one morning over the Christmas break and the speaker talked of ‘hope’ being an anchor that can steady the ship of life when sailing through choppy waters. This metaphor resonated with me and I recognised that the people I occasionally meet, who are without hope, do appear lost at sea, and like flotsom and jetsam seem to be swept along by the prevailing tide and winds.
In a business context it is a key job of any leader to be responsible or ‘response – able’. That is able to choose how best to respond to any given situation or set of circumstances. I have recent evidence that the degree of optimism that abounds at any point in time in a leadership team can dramatically effect how leaders respond to the challenges they face and as a result the performance targets they aim to deliver in the future.
Last year I facilitated a leadership team reporting their worst performance in decades. However they did so with a clear sense of purpose and in the knowledge that the challenges that lie ahead were formidible. We coached the leader to recognise that a large dose of hope can turn this situation around, his team needed to hear what they were about to attempt was at least possible. The hope he displayed lifted spirits and galvanised his leaders and their people for the challenges that lie ahead, it got them determined and focused on what needed to be done.
I have also witnessed other leadership teams reporting near record breaking results with very little celebration! Only a gloomy warning that next year trading conditions will continue to be tough and the price we pay for this years success is that the challenge to improve next year will be next to impossible. The targets they set are correspondingly incremental and full of caveats…. boom, boom, boom the relentless drum of pessimism sucked the life force from all present!
I know which leadership team is more likely to succeed or will at least have a damn good shot at trying and which team is updating their CV’s even as you read this……
Is there any reason for the rational optimist to be hopeful as we enter the New Year? Well the IoD have just published their latest survey of leaders in the UK that shows a growing sense of Optimism in the year ahead http://www.iod.com/Influencing/Press-Office/Press-releases/New-Poll-Business-leaders-optimistic-for-2013?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=mainstory&utm_campaign=enews+jan+2013
The overall headline seems to be that our leaders felt much worse this time last year about the economy, well at least that’s something! The end might not be in sight yet but it may be the end of the pessimism which in itself is an end of sorts that should lift our spirits.
On a lighter note, Stephen Moss writing in the Guardian online, in an attempt at some end of year frivolity, published an article on reasons to be cheerful in 2013 which included looking forward to the cheese rolling contest in Gloucestershire and amongst other things he noted; ‘The summer of 2013 promises to be a euphoric one. As well as the Ashes and Glastonbury, there is also the royal baby to look forward to. “It will be such a joy,” says a Chinese tourist at the entrance to Windsor Castle – Chinese visitors to the town now outnumber Americans.’ Maybe we need to listen more to people who do not have what we have to appreciate what we have.
As Bob Dylan famously sang ‘the times they are a changing’….. Let’s go through 2013 with our eyes wide open, hope in our hearts and see if we can make it the best year yet…..
Malcolm Follos, February 2013