Last year, I assumed a role as a Tactical Officer (TAC) of a West Point Cadet company, where my primary duties include teaching, advising, and coaching the Cadet chain of command as they practice leading and following within a military-style organizational structure. Less than two months into this role, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with how our company was performing. My frustration grew from the gap between my perception of our company’s current level of seemingly average performance and the high amount of potential I saw throughout the entire company and the nearly 120 Cadets in it.
Unfortunately, I let my frustration materialize into my leadership more than I thought and, though unintentional, it started to negatively affect my working relationships with my Cadets. Cadets became colder and more formal in our interactions, they began including me less in their challenges and decision-making, and became less interested in seeking my advice or thoughts.
Luckily, I had an incredibly mature and professional Cadet company commander who I was able to seek his perspective on the situation. Fortunately, he was honest with me and informed me that I seemed to be growing more and more negative over the recent weeks and the Cadets across the company took notice. Wow – talk about a heavy dose of needed reality and re-alignment from a kid with almost ten-years less experience than me. Looking back, though, this experience has served as a huge blessing in my continuous journey to lead and influence others better.
Through this, I learned the critical role of leaders’ commitment to bringing perpetual optimism and positive energy to the teams, organizations, and every person they lead.
Why Leaders Need to Be Optimistic
Leadership focuses on organizational development and improvement. Such improvement requires change and change is often hard because it inherently tells everyone else that what we are doing now and how we are doing it is not sufficient. That is hard to do. Amidst such development and change, leaders must remain perpetually optimistic; here are five key reasons why.
- Leaders must earn the right to speak truth into others’ lives. Earning the trust of your people is not automatic as a leader. You must earn it and re-earn it every single day in order to be able to influence them. Part of earning others’ trust is bringing encouragement, positive reinforcement, and positivity to challenging situations. People are not as interested in offering their trust to leaders who are consistently negative, always pointing out failures and things that we need to improve, or seem to be dissatisfied and discouraged in every situation. We need leaders who inspire hope in others.
- Teams and organizations reflect their leaders’ emotions. Whether we understand and accept it or not, leaders heavily influence the attitude and tone of their organizations. Groups subconsciously mold their attitudes and behaviors after their leader. As The Military Leader addresses in one of my favorite leadership blog posts, organizational energy comes from you, the leader. So, do you desire a collectively positive and optimistic work environment or a negative and pessimistic one each day? Each and every day, we as leaders must model the attitude that we desire to see in the organization regardless of how we are personally feeling that day. Sometimes, bringing optimistic leadership must be a deliberate choice as we enter the workplace that day.
- Self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a belief or expectation that one holds about a future event that manifests because the person simply holds it. Through this concept of mindset, we may fail due to high levels of self-doubt or achieve audacious goals stemming from extensive positive-thinking. Often, it can merely be our mindsets that enable us to succeed or not. Leaders can be key contributors to others’ beliefs or expectations of their performance by creating an environment to form or reinforce it. Optimistic leaders may bring the necessary positive-thinking and inspiration that others need to unlock hidden potential.
- Orientation toward failure. Adaptability is becoming a more critical leadership quality in today’s inter-connected and digital world, especially with the growth of artificial intelligence (AI). Inherent to adapting is organizational resiliency and quickly learning from failure; we can’t avoid failure as our organizations (and leaders) continue to grow and adapt to our environment. Thus, we cannot be overly risk adverse or set a zero-tolerance precedence with failure. Optimistic leaders bring a necessary positivity to failure situations, encouraging their people through it and helping them maximize their learning.
- Solutions-focused. Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, stated that optimism is “an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?” In today’s increasingly digital, complex, and ambiguous operating environments, leaders require support from advisors, inner-circles, a supporting staff, and/or subordinate leaders more-and-more to make the most timely and effective decisions possible. Optimistic leaders focus more on collaboration and finding solutions over merely identifying problems.
How Leaders Can Be Optimistic
It might be easy to see the need for optimism in our leadership, but it can be harder to plan out how we can start bringing a more consistent and effective optimism to how we lead and influence others. We can all start with the five small behavior changes today.
- A personal daily dedication to see and communicate what can be. Leaders must focus on and communicate what can be to their people, not merely what currently is. Leaders must lean toward the possible in the possible vs. present spectrum. I failed to do this early in my TAC role as mentioned above. I always try to base my teaching, advising, and coaching with Cadets on what potentially can be moving forward, not just what is presently realistic or feasible.
- Apply Gottman’s 5:1 positive interactions ratio. Gottman’s theory is that the most successful relationships and marriages have a “magic ratio” of five or more positive interactions for every negative one during conflict. We can absolutely adapt this model to our leadership, aiming to have five or more positive and encouraging interactions with our people for every one where we provide challenging development or one where we hold them accountable for their actions.
- Use positivity in enforcing standards and holding others accountable. Leaders uphold high standards and hold people accountable to them. These accountability conversations are often negative and intense, leaving bad tastes in the mouths of everyone involved after. I don’t believe holding others accountable has to be this terrible experience, though. How can leaders hold others to high standards while inspiring them toward higher commitment to those standards in a mutually positive way? I think there are 12 simple ways leaders to enforce high standards and discipline with their people in inspiring and consistently positive ways.
- Communicate perspective. Unfortunately, it’s lazy human nature to identify problems…and stop there. Leaders need to help people understand what we can and cannot control, why, and inspire the group to do something about it. Leaders communicate perspective at every opportunity – who we are, what we do, and why we do it is important.
- “I love you and I’m proud of you.” As I write this, I laugh, because I’ve learned that I’ve become known to Cadets as the TAC that says, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” Sometimes, I think people just need to be reminded that someone else cares about them and that they are proud of them. It’s surprising how little we are all reminded of that in our lives. By trying to communicate that I love and am proud of my people in my words and behaviors as much as possible, I remind them that I notice their efforts, they are valuable to me and our organization, and we all appreciate their contributions.
My learning on this topic span beyond just personal experience. I am also not the only person to look at this leadership topic. Below are a few additional recommended resources to continue exploring leadership and perpetual optimism.
- It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, by Colin Powell. Of the lessons he highlights from life and leadership, #13 is “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
- Do All Things with Energy and Optimism, by 3×5 Leadership
- “The Energy Comes from You,” by The Military Leader
- 5 Reasons Why Optimists Make Better Leaders, by Forbes
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