Action with positive intent always beats the alternative. I grew up in an environment where this approach was always fostered. It instilled a worldview which always looked at every situation with a can-do attitude that emphasized an optimistic mindset. However, being an optimist may actually have unintended negative consequences. Recently, I have learned, in our new and quite thought provoking leadership program, that certain leadership styles can actually be "accidental diminishers" and may result in counterproductive attitudes. There are all kinds of different diminshers and all of them come from mostly positive or well-intentioned behaviors. Challenging my own, always optimistic, outlook on life I thought about a couple of examples on how optimism impacts leadership behavior.
First, I think there can be an issue of setting unrealistic expectations. An "everything-is-possible-leader" may lose the respect of her or his team by being perceived as not appreciating the difficulty of the task at hand and unintentionally create an environment where teams feel overwhelmed, misunderstood and demotivated. However, I think unrealistic expectations may also create energy and can serve as a catalyst to get great things accomplished. 30 years ago my father and I built a log-home in Canada. I remember the huge truck pulling up at our place and dropping off a pile of logs with only 3 weeks left before our scheduled departure back to Austria. Standing in front of the pile, having never done anything like this before, my father simply said "it can be done". This was completely unrealistic – however, we worked hard and got it done – with 2 days to spare. Seeing my father's confidence that we would be able to pull this off made all the difference for me and probably propelled me extra hard to get the job done.
The second example centers on being unreasonably positive. A leader, who is always positive, in a good mood and thinks everything is great, may prompt teams to limit their ability to create persuasive arguments or think more carefully about a topic. It may stifle a contrarian viewpoint or perceive a challenging argument as creating negative energy. Unreasonably positive leaders simply tend to disregard negative emotions. There are several studies highlighting the benefits of negative thinking. I have experienced this especially in risk management where a pessimistic or more cautious mindset can be beneficial in thinking about what a worst-case scenario could be. A pessimistic disposition may find it easier to think about all the different things which could go wrong.
Third, optimists can be too overconfident and create an expectation that everything is under control when it may not be. Teams my start to over-rely on a hyper confident leader and are unwilling to challenge the status quo. This may become a form of unintended intimidation. I think it all comes down to striking the right balance – which of course is never easy.
While the risks of over-optimism are real, I believe that a positive mindset is contagious. Optimistic leaders are able to rally a team to a better future, they have an open mind and can-do attitude, they see the big picture, they are not afraid of failure, they value collaboration and they simply have a winning and success mindset. 10 years after I built the log home with my father, I walked into the office of Mr. Thomas Murrin, who became my mentor for many years, to interview for a graduate assistant position. There on his office desk was a leather sign with gold letters imprinted: "It can be done". Destiny…
I conclude with a quote from Harry Truman: "A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties".