"Optimism balanced by realism shines when faced with extreme challenge. Optimists choose to look for positivity in the situation, and most importantly, they always take action towards a better outcome, regardless of the problem."
by Frank Orlowski (September 2020)
As business leaders, our goal is always to lead our teams to success. During these challenging COVID-19 times, it’s critical to strike the right adaptive mindset and not over- or under-react.
We need to find a way not to be pessimistic, but also balance realism with optimism.
As William Arthur Warn said: The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. The balance of optimism with realism during these challenging times is the way business leaders can win.
James Stockdale, the United States Navy Vice Admiral and aviator was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years and survived when so many others did not. Stockdale explained his significant insight as the following: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
This is indeed a paradox. Although we’re not prisoners of war, we relate to Admiral Stockdale in not knowing how long we’ll be wrestling with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
As business leaders, if we ignore the challenges on our teams, the leader will be naïve and out of touch. If the leader mires in the challenges, they risk creating a culture of pessimism that will demoralize and demotivate the team and undermine its effectiveness.
To promote Stockdale’s prevailing mindset as leaders of a team there are two helpful strategies.
The disruptive nature of working remotely 100% of the time while balancing personal and family challenges during COVID-19 requires a team to learn how to ruthlessly prioritize with more structure and pace without slowing the team down.
Rally team members around short-term goals to ensure “quick wins” and build morale.
Realistic business leaders will excel by keeping emotion out of the equation in business decision making.
Adding optimism to realism allows leaders to see the brighter side of things demonstrating to team members that things will get better day by day. As Edwin Bliss stated: “Success doesn’t mean the absence of failures; it means the attainment of ultimate objectives. It means winning the war, not every battle”.
Winning leaders and teams make things happen, plan, and prepare instead of hunkering down and waiting. Winning leaders see potential were the less successful dwell on the past. Winning business leaders might not know “how” they will excel and achieve their goals, but they always believe that they will figure it out. They know that effort is the great equalizer. If they do not already know what to do, they will learn it and perfect it. Successful leaders during this COVID-19 pandemic understand that worry, fear, action, and gratitude are all choices you get to make and that apathy is the enemy of achieving something great. Use the difficult times to realize as a leader of a business, this is the second chance your team has always been asking for. It’s critical to make decisions quickly during this difficult time. However, a business decision that is easy or guaranteed is bound not to be highly successful in the long run.
Overly optimistic business leaders believe in their soul that nothing — absolutely nothing — is impossible.
However, unrealistic optimism and accepting that you are more likely to experience pleasant events, and less likely than others to experience negative ones can lead to disengagement of a team and hamper trust. A team that is blinded by optimism will not be able to change course when trouble is encountered. Therefore, it’s critical to ensure realism keeps optimism in check.
Pessimist business leaders tend to believe that bad situations are the fault of others or the internal team, and that good business outcomes are not caused by anything they or others have done, and most likely cannot be repeated.
So, when it comes to optimism or pessimism, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is an ideal motto. To achieve that, you must be honest with yourself about your approach and outlook.
Whether you believe the world is conspiring against us, or if you believe that the world is conspiring in our favor, it doesn’t make it any more or less realistic.
A business leader can be optimistic or pessimistic, but there is a also third state of mind called, Being A Realistic Optimist. This means that in general and for most business situations, a leader is an optimistic thinker. However, in particularly challenging conditions (e.g., before and during very complicated negotiations with many unknown and unfavorable variables) a leader might apply a more conservative style.
Optimism balanced by realism shines when faced with extreme challenge. Optimists choose to look for positivity in the situation, and most importantly, they always take action towards a better outcome, regardless of the problem.
Let’s take a moment to define optimism:
A tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and expect the most favorable outcome.” -Courtesy of Dictionary.com
What’s so unrealistic (or unhealthy) about that? Optimistic leaders believe that things will work out because in their minds believing in the alternative makes absolutely no sense. No matter what a leader’s goal, they have no control over the future. There is no one reading these words which can predict the future. And because of that, we have a genuine choice that we need to make about our expectations.
Since none of us know what will happen next, wouldn’t it make sense to always focus our expectations on what we want to happen in our lives instead of what we do not want to happen?
The word “Optimism “is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, ultimately means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle (Albert Einstein).
Research has found that positive, i.e., optimistic thinking can aid in coping with stress, in becoming more resilient, in being more courageous, and plays a significant role in improving one’s health and well-being.
According to Martin Seligmann, people with a so-called optimistic explanatory style tend to give themselves credit when good things happen and typically blame outside forces for bad outcomes. They also look at adverse events as temporary and atypical.
Albert Bandura, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology, argued decades ago that optimism is the basis for creating and maintaining motivation to reach goals. And that an individual’s success is mostly based on the fact of whether they believe they will succeed. The results of his findings have yet to be proven wrong.
Unrealistic optimists (I also refer to them as naive realists), on the one hand, are convinced that success will happen to them almost automatically and that they will succeed effortlessly. Some of them even think (and hope) that only by sending out positive thoughts, the universe might reward them by transforming all of their wishes and aspirations into reality.
Realistic optimists are vigorously optimistic, too. They firmly believe that they make things happen and that they will succeed. They do not doubt it. Saying that, on the other hand, they perfectly know that in order of being successful, they have to plan well, to access all necessary resources, to stay focused and persistent, to evaluate different options, and to execute in excellence.
Being both optimistic and realistic, i.e., combining the two into one behavioral style of realistic optimism, creates a special breed of very successful people. Natural optimists stay positive and upbeat about the future, even – and especially – if and when they recognize the challenges ahead. As such, realism and optimism are not diametrically opposed. The contrary is true: They compellingly complement each other!
In case of doubt – and mostly if you want to achieve something very unique and impactful – the optimist in you should outwit your realist. Why? The realist might be too prone to anxiety. The optimist, however, if stimulated and guided well, will activate your fantasy, imagination, and boldness.
But there is an important caveat: to be successful, you need to understand the vital difference between believing you will succeed and believing you will succeed easily. Put another way, it’s the difference between being a realistic optimist and an unrealistic optimist.
Realistic optimists believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen — through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies. They recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. This preparation only increases their confidence in their ability to get things done.
Unrealistic optimists, on the other hand, believe that success will happen to them — that the universe will reward them for all their positive thinking, or that somehow they will be transformed overnight into the kind of person for whom obstacles cease to exist. (Forgetting that even Superman had Kryptonite. And a secret identity that took a lot of trouble to maintain and relationship issues.)
Believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to tremendous success because it forces you to take action. People who are confident that they will succeed, and equally confident that success won’t come easily, put in more effort, plan how they’ll deal with problems before they arise, and persist longer in the face of difficulty like the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Unrealistic optimists are only too happy to tell you that you are “being negative” when you dare to express concerns, harbor reservations, or dwell too long on obstacles that stand in the way of your goal. In truth, this kind of thinking is a necessary step in any successful endeavor, and it’s not at all antithetical to confident optimism. Focusing only on what we want, to the exclusion of everything else, is just the naïve and reckless thinking that has landed industry leaders (and at times, entire industries) in hot water during this difficult period.
Cultivate your realistic optimism by combining a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don’t visualize success — visualize the steps you will take to make success happen.
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