Yes, Optimism Can Make Better Leaders

When people initiate a personal campaign to improve themselves — for example, shed a bad habit, exercise more, be nicer to their co-workers, learn a new language, elevate their spirit — there is a high probability they will fail. At some point, early in the game or near the finish line, most people will abandon their campaign to get better.

My daughter Kelly helped me review the research on goal achievement, and we came up with six major reasons why people give up:

1. It takes longer than we thought. Our need for instant gratification trumps patience and discipline.

2. It’s more difficult than we thought.

3. We have other things to do. Distractions take our eyes off the ball.

4. We don’t get the expected reward. This creates frustration rather than inspiration to persist.

5. We declare victory too soon. Lose a few pounds? “Let’s order pizza.”

6. We have to do it forever. Maintenance is tough.

Most of us don’t articulate these reasons; we simply accept defeat and vow to do better next time. This isn’t a failure of discipline, or an unrealistic vision of our future, or being overwhelmed by distractions. It’s a crisis of optimism. After the first wave of success, when improvement gets harder, our efforts can seem more hopeless than hopeful. You lose your initial burst of optimism, and optimism is the fuel that drives the engine of change.

Optimism is a form of behavior that guides everything we do. It can be self-fulfilling, and it’s contagious. People pick up on optimism and gravitate toward it. It’s more attractive than pessimism.

I am not suggesting you abandon realism. Just the opposite. Take a hard look at the six factors that can derail your goal achievement. Then, when they happen, you will realize these challenges are normal and be more likely to maintain your optimism.

I saw the impact of optimism firsthand with my client Harlan, a division chief at an industrial company who was leading thousands of people. He was given a challenge by his CEO — increase the positive impact you have across the company, not just in your division. He made more progress toward his goals than anyone I have ever coached, even though I spent very little time with him — and he was great to begin with.

One reason why? Harlan sees change as an opportunity, not a challenge. And his relentlessly positive attitude is not an act. You don’t lead thousands of people without a realist’s tough side.

For a variety of reasons beyond his control, Harlan was not promoted when the CEO slot opened up. When I talked to him during this rough period, he was disappointed, but accepting. He had already labeled his unfortunate situation as “stuff happens,” and moved on. If he was feeling wounded, the scars didn’t show, and he stayed in the position, doing a great job.

Headhunters are always looking for managers like Harlan, who can run something big and know how to motivate people. Those skills hadn’t vanished. His identity and achievements were still intact. Although he loved his company, he felt free to consider options elsewhere.

Even if others don’t know our histories, optimism can be a difference maker. Believing in what we can achieve can improve one’s behavior and demeanor — and other people notice.

A year later, after turning down several offers, Harlan accepted a CEO job at an even larger company. Although this company faced huge challenges, Harlan never lost his positive spirit. He did not let one setback color his attitude toward work and life. This is one reason so many of the employees at his new firm are thrilled he is doing all he can to serve them, their customers and their shareholders.

Harlan is not that unusual in his optimism, only in how wide he casts his net of hope. He isn’t just optimistic about his future; he feels the same way about other people’s potential as well. That’s why he can lead and others will follow. Optimism like his isn’t merely infectious, it’s positively radioactive.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 31 books, including MOJO. He can be reached at