Realistic optimism

Are you a glass is half empty or a glass half full type of person? The answer to this question is to help you understand whether we are generally optimistic in our outlook or more pessimistic. Which would you say you are? I would say that I am generally an optimist. I try and look for the positive and the opportunity in most situations. You may be similar. Being optimistic is helpful for the most part. However, there is a caveat to this. You cannot be optimistic without being realistic.

As a team or organisation leader, or a business owner it is important to realise what your general tendency is in this regard, because depending on what your situation is will dictate how you orientate your optimism. In other words, optimism is generally helpful, however if you don’t take account of the facts of your situation then the optimism will not be helpful it will be harmful.

To illustrate this, I have included a quote from Admiral James Stockdale who was held as prisoner of war in Vietnam for 8 years. This is an extract of a conversation he had with Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great.”

“I asked Stockdale: ‘Who didn’t make it out?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. […] They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas. And then they’d say, ‘we’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.’ And they died of a broken heart.”

In your present circumstances, you walk the knife edge of knowing that this crisis will pass and dealing with the everyday reality of wading through a fast-changing and challenging situation. It is not wrong to talk about getting through the crisis. At the same time as you lead others through it is important to acknowledge that it is challenging and difficult.

Remaining authentic demonstrates to those that you lead, that you haven’t got your head in the clouds and lets them know that whilst things are challenging, we can take steps that position us to weather the storm. That includes our own mental resilience.

How do you act as leaders so that you keep your heads up and maintain your authenticity at the same time?

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end… with the discipline to confront the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.” – Admiral James Stockdale

It is important that we set goals that spur us on towards a better future. The skill is setting these in a way where it is not overwhelming for the team. Whatever “mountain” you are looking to scale, you need to make a clear assessment, or as Admiral Stockdale put it, acknowledge the brutal facts of your current reality.

Optimism contains hope within it. Hope is the fuel for forward movement, particularly when things seem to be more challenging than usual. The realism within that acknowledges that, in order to scale this mountain, each climber (team member) will need different help to achieve it. The leader must set the direction; you can, out of necessity, achieve much more than you think.

With my coaching clients, progress can only be made towards solutions, once we have dealt with the present reality of what they want to go after. When the reality of where we are is established then options to move forward can be planned with clarity and certainty.

It could be that the goal is to get a new project off the ground that will increase sales and revenue. Great. But, if the team is already at capacity, we have to ask, “what will stop so they can get on with this new goal?” Whatever the current circumstance, it needs to be taken into consideration. It could be that maintaining with some improvements the processes that are already in place but now being done remotely is the best focus.

I am not saying let’s not move forward. I am saying taking account of current reality in the situation will help avoid the stress of an unrealistic goal or a great goal with an unrealistic timeframe. Goals are about hope. Any hope can be eroded if projects have been poorly conceived without due regard for where we are now. In my experience involving people in the decision-making process, who will be affected by it, will mean a greater ownership and appreciation of the challenges and lead to solutions that were not immediately obvious.

Optimism is great. It is a stance that, I believe, can be inspiring, create hope and enable you to achieve more than you thought was possible. You can be optimistic that you will get through this crisis. You don’t know when, but in the meantime, you can look to set realistic goals that will enable organisations, teams and individuals to grow.

Situations can look overwhelming. Often it is not necessarily a change in circumstances that enables you to get through it but the way in which you view those circumstances. Resilience can be built when you change your view.

“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.”– Christine Caine

Mark Billage
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Mark Billage

Over the past 25 plus years, in different leadership roles, Mark has worked in different sectors, from financial services to charity and people development. He has set up businesses, served on Boards of Trustees, and led a medium-sized charity as their CEO. As the founder of Smart Culture Ltd, he is passionate about unlocking people potential. His aim in setting up the company is to provide quality training and coaching to leaders and their teams. Mark wants to help leaders to be more effective in their leadership. This transforms team culture, and relationships around them, so all can bring their best contribution in a safe environment.