When Positive Thinking Hurts You

Naive Optimism and a Better Alternative
Great Leadership Lessons, Note 28

Pop Leadership!
When simplistic tag lines become wisdom, then those who teach them play the fool. Shame on them and on those who buy in to the jargon.

There is a lot of pop leadership trite thrown around. What makes it a challenge is that in most cases, it has some basis in truth, but it takes the PIECE of reality and turns it into the WHOLE of reality. A useful principle becomes an unchallengeable dogma. Here are two of those SLOGANS you hear all the time.

When you are a part of an organization that is in decline, being positive when things are falling apart - that is not leadership - that is naive, ruinous foolishness. Don't let a cute poster saying tell you otherwise. 

When disruptive change is happening around you and you are not keeping up with the competition, with evolving technology, with the market demand, etc. this is not a time for positive thinking. This is a time for critical realism. 

Critical realism is the ability to look at the problem honestly... name the reality as it is... truly see the crisis that is unfolding... analyze the weaknesses currently at work in your organization... understand the consequences... and then, continue to have hope that change, while difficult - is possible. 

The pessimist sees the glass as half empty.
The naive optimist sees it as half full.
The critical realist sees it is BOTH half empty AND half full.
The critical realist also understands there is a reason it is half empty and we better figure out how to fill it up.
Do you see the difference between these three approaches.

IT IS NOT LEADERSHIP to be a naive optimist when the situation calls for CRITICAL REALISM that confronts the brutal facts. And as Collins tells us in Good to Great, confront the brutal facts without losing hope. 

Here is the second slogan. Now this sounds wonderful. It has a ring to it. And "some truth" to it. I think of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln as two leaders who confronted the worst crises in the history of their countries. They had the wisdom and faith to see the greater opportunity that was on the other side of the crisis.

For Lincoln it was a United States of America that had freedom for all peoples.

For Churchill it was a democratic Europe free of Nazi tyranny and totalitarianism.

They were indeed optimistic, forward looking and hopeful.

But let's not neglect the historical facts. Both Churchill and Lincoln were committed realists. They saw the opportunity in the difficulty and they saw the danger. They saw what was at stake. They knew the cost of failure. They understood how hard the difficulty was. They realized the price that would have to be paid for success.

Lincoln was the melancholy president. The "opportunity" of the Civil War weighed heavily on him. As death and destruction mounted, as the north lost battle after battle, it was not so much the "opportunity" but the principle itself that gave Lincoln the strength to go on in the midst of devastation. 

Churchill was indeed more confident. That was his personality. He was daring, ambitious, visionary. Still, Churchill clearly understood the sacrifices that Britain would have to make. He understood even more clearly the cost of defeat. This was no simple positive thinking on his part. His was political and philosophical determinations to grind on in the terrible suffering of the British people, finding ways to stimulate hope and forestall despair. You generally do not use blood, sweat and tears as the only thing to offer as a main motivation in your positive thinking speech.

Again - yes, leaders see opportunity in the difficulty, but they also see the danger in the difficulty. They have a CRITICAL REALISM about the difficulty and then they speak truthfully about the opportunity and the danger.

Back to Jim Collins and How the Mighty Fall, and organizations that are in decline. When you are in decline, this is not the time for either naive optimism or a defeated pessimism. Now is when leaders need to muster the best Critical Realism they can, confront the brutal facts of decline and not lose hope. 

How about you as a leader? My assumption is that few of you who read this are pessimists. The question to ask is whether you have the ability to be a Critical Realist when that kind of leadership is needed. See the good and the bad, the danger and the opportunity, not minimizing or exaggerating either; and then mapping the way forward?

Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International