Awareness of Actual Circumstances Versus Impervious Optimism

Why is an awareness of actual circumstances so hard – and what makes it so important – for leaders to see the world as it really is? Let’s look as some examples of leaders who have addressed this question.

When we think of all the responsibility, setbacks, and other difficulties that a leader must face in today’s work environment, the need for an underlying optimism is hardly surprising. But that optimism, something that is widely viewed as a valuable personality trait, can be an Achilles’ heel for leaders.

Optimism is a much more complicated concept than we often realize. Consider the following illustration involving a former employee of mine.

[wcm_restrict]The first time I met ‘Steve’ we were having lunch outside a hotel in Beverly Hills, and I remember he kept remarking about the beauty of our surroundings, the tremendous expanse of sky above us, and how terrific the food was. As we talked, that positive outlook was a continual presence. When we discussed the toll that constant travel could take, he spoke about how much he liked to travel and how he would always write ahead to friends in the area to find the best local known restaurants. He truly believed there wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be figured out with the right attitude.

As research by prominent psychologist Martin Seligman has shown, that kind of optimism is critical to those in the insurance sales business and those who must handle rejection well; certainly it came in handy for Steve. Once I was at a meeting with him, when a senior HR executive was downright rude and acerbic to Steve. All Steve said afterward was “I think that went really well. We’re gonna close that sale!” His optimism allowed him to thrive in the sales profession, but it would render him completely ineffective in a leadership position.

Given the setbacks that every leader faces in today’s environment of unprecedented competition, why wouldn’t people with Steve’s almost boundless optimism be able to use that as an asset? It is because that kind of optimism shows a disregard for a huge amount of critical information that is available in the world around him. Impervious optimism is a critical flaw because leaders have to process and address a tremendous amount of failure on their way to any success of significance. By examining their failures and why they happen, leaders determine what they must do differently to succeed. Furthermore, frustration and disappointment, though unpleasant emotions, are a critical internal thermometer that helps leaders measure the seriousness of a given setback. Great leaders are acutely aware when their efforts are encountering an obstacle, and they insist that their people be so as well.

Effective leadership requires an individual to take in both positive and negative messages, recognize their respective merits, and use the data to pursue a strategy that is most likely to yield positive outcomes in the future. Leaders need to remain painfully aware of the real uncertainties that exist and use them as part of their calculations to discover the best possible route to success.

And they must demand the same mentality of their people. To effectively realize potential in yourself and others, then, you must react to setbacks with the appropriate level of disappointment that reflects the seriousness of the problem so that your people also take the bad with the good. Impervious optimism blocks an awareness of actual circumstances and is a fatal flaw to anyone trying to lead in a world of ongoing duress.

What makes the negative feelings associated with setback even more essential is that frustration, obstacles, and moments of doubt are actually required if we are to grow to our full potential. Beyond the practical implications of being realistic (i.e., knowing what problems need to be fixed), by facing those failures and deliberately pressing on in spite of them, a leader ultimately finds gratifying success.

Success by winning the lottery, on the contrary, does nothing to teach the gratifying process of realizing potential. People who do so get no closer to understanding their fundamental need for gratifying achievement. In fact, because wealth is often regarded as a public and visible signal of accomplishment, effortless attainment of wealth can actually push people further away from pursuing the kind of challenging work that leads to realizing potential, which can only be forged through adversity.

Similarly, a person born with extraordinary mental or athletic gifts often receives accolades throughout his or her early years without putting in as much effort as peers do for the same grades or athletic prowess. However, like free money, extreme talent can also be costly, because it can push people who possess it further from learning the lessons of how to realize potential. Ultimately, as their lives progress and they inevitably confront serious challenges or setbacks, they know nothing about the value of frustration, the discipline required to face their moments of doubt, and the gratification that comes from succeeding in spite of these challenges.

Gifts you receive are of far less perceived value because they cannot be internalized as something hard earned, something learned, or something that you otherwise had a personal role in obtaining. The journey to press on, to overcome adversity, must be derived because of a choice made. This is how self-esteem is built. This is how adults create an internal feeling that they matter – by choosing to play an essential role in bringing about something important but difficult to achieve. To be a master of realizing potential, you must be able to teach others how to overcome adversity.

This chapter examines how to develop an awareness of actual circumstances – especially when you look at yourself. As part of this examination, we’ll look at the role humility plays in a leader’s ability to face reality and how humility in turn helps craft the kinds of elastic organizations needed in today’s pressured environment. We’ll also learn how your ability to model pragmatism depends on the degree of humanity you exhibit, and how you can make the organization’s drive for survival palpable for your people.[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember]

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About the Author

Justin Menkes is an acclaimed author and leading expert in executive assessment. A consultant for the influential executive search firm Spencer Stuart, he and his colleagues advise the boards of the world’s leading companies on their choice of CEO. He authored The Wall Street Journal bestseller Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have and has written articles for Chief Executive and the Harvard Business Review. To read Justin Menkes’ complete biography, click here.

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