Thursday, January 28, 2010


I've been thinking a great deal about optimism these days. Clearly, one must be optimistic to lead. A leader must see a path to the future which is not fraught with danger and opportunities for failure. A leader must believe that they, and their team, can succeed. 

On the other hand, a leader must be realistic about the hurdles on the path, and develop plans to address those which are foreseeable, and a cushion to address the remainder. They must be optimistic enough not to be deterred by these hurdles, of course, lest they see these molehills as insurmountable mountains. 

On the third hand, over-optimism can take down a leader. Hurdles do exist. They will require work. Ignoring them is to neglect any preparation that could be done. Ignoring them will all but ensure there is no slack in the system to account for the unforeseen. 

On the fourth hand, too much of a focus on the negative can lead to distress, both among the leader himself/herself and among the troops. Murphy's law is leadership suicide. There has to be an element of faith associated with the optimism. A modicum. A tablespoon. Not a carafe-full.

I've been toying, as well, with the idea that a leader can project a different message and different attitude, to the degree they are capable of it, than they actually hold. They can be cautiously optimistic internally, but enthusiastically optimistic outwardly. Some people can manage that. Others can see right through that behavior. Still, it seems like a viable option. 

I think the hardest part is the cognitive dissonance of being both realistic and optimistic, and holding them in balance, so that neither goes unchecked. No mean feat. It's harder when you try to portray two messages to different audiences - and even harder when you realize that often, there are precious few people who can be privy to this leadership trick.

Don't mind the leader behind the curtain.

1 comment:

Capt. BS said...

Indeed, it's a rare person who can handle (and project) this dissonant dualism by themself. That's why you see so many companies, governments, and other organizations that have both a "leader" and a "manager-in-chief". The former is the strategic visionary who identifies the next major milestones to achieve; the latter figures out the nuts and bolts of how to get there and make sure everyone stays in line on the way. The leader is a man of faith who believes in the greatness and soundness of his vision, and in the ability of his team (or at least *a* team) to realize it; the manager is a man of science who relies on empirical measurements, analysis, and deductive reasoning to execute against the master plan.

The problem of taking on both of these roles is more or less one of altitude. As you suggest, it's difficult to keep your eyes on the horizon when you're constantly navigating around the trees, mountains, and other obstacles in the way. And the less time you spend with your end-goal squarely in your crosshairs, the less inspiration you can draw from the thought or imminence of achieving it in order to keep yourself on course and maintain awareness of the constantly-changing big picture.

Of course, there are also problems with separating these roles. As exhibit A, you need look no farther than Washington D.C... Obama declares, "We need healthcare reform!" To which the Democratic supermajority in Congress reponds by getting tangled up in its underwear over the course of a year and getting nothing done. Now, let's assume for a moment that you think some kind of healthcare reform needs to happen (and a majority of Americans do). Did Obama have a clear vision of what our healthcare system needed to become? Absolutely. Was he overly optimistic about the degree to which he could reform the system in one fell swoop? You betcha[tm]. Did he make a mistake in delegating the entire legislation process to Congress and watching it unfold from a distance? Definitely.

Leadership requires (and thrives on) optimism to find and strive for the Next Great Thing. Effective management requires realism and pragmatism to ensure that everyone actually arrives at the Next Great Thing, and does so efficiently and intact. You can't really delegate one role to the other without sacrificing that role's natural strengths.

Which is why I think that, ultimately, you do need to have separate people (or teams) dedicated to each. The catch (the onus of which is totally on the management side) is that both roles need to engage in close and constant collaboration to keep each other in check, lest either side's internal feedback loops cause themelves to become overly polarized toward their own mode of thinking, and unable to communicate effectively with the other team. Visions change, ships hit icebergs, and supreme courts occasionally grant the rights of individuals to corporations for no particular reason... and when these things happen, there needs to be an optimist to articulate (and believe in) the big picture, and a realist at his/her side to evaluate and negotiate the obstacles that block and obscure it.