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Thoughts

Pollyanna vs. Debbie Downer: leadership styles across the spectrum of optimism

— Culture & Observations —

Waiting in a doctor’s office the other day I picked up an old Time magazine and was intrigued by the Tali Sharot cover story, “The Optimism Bias.” For the most part I consider myself a glass-half-full sort of gal, so I wondered what the latest word on the street was about my type.

The premise of the article is that most people are pre-wired to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Most of us tend to believe we will find a job, that our start-up business will succeed, that our marriage will not end in divorce, that we will not suffer from health issues – even though we are fully aware of the likelihood of these things happening to people. But in each of our individual brains, we subconsciously insert the word “other” before the word “people.”

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness back up these observations. In one study prior to the start of a class session, MBA students were asked about how they would perform in the class in relation to the other students. Knowing full well that 50% of the students would be in the top half of the class and 50% would be in the bottom, only 5% of the students indicated that they would fall into that bottom half. Over 50% felt they would be in the top 20%.

According to scientists, as the human brain evolved, we developed a unique ability to distinguish between past, present and future events and move between these timeframes with relative ease.  Interestingly, despite this ability, when people are asked to describe how they think an event in the future will go – something that they have done before –  they almost invariably describe that event with more positive details than would be reflective of the similar experience they’ve had in the past. A trip to the grocery story might be described with the purchase of many healthy food choices, a vacation described without a single glitch, a project that exceeds expectations and is delivered within budget and early!

While this perspective on future events can leave us ill prepared to deal with deviations, it is because of this ability to compartmentalize and tuck away the negative that we are able to make progress at all. It allows us to take risks, it allows us to hope, it allows us to build upon things previously done without the fear of, at least, total devastation.

So one might think an optimistic leadership style would be best, wouldn’t you?

Not so fast. Do you know what Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have in common? Recognized as great leaders – great leadership during times of tumultuous change even. That would be true. But also, they were all pessimists. Depressed. Mentally Ill. Suicidal even. Nassir Ghaemi collected that research for his article “Depression in Command.”

Ghaemi supports the findings that reveal a “positive illusion” in people that are mentally healthy. On the contrary, he adds that people that are mildly depressed tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. They are more willing to admit their mistakes and even change course midstream as reality requires.  In addition, Ghaemi offers research that shows a correlation between depression and high degrees of empathy – a greater concern for how others think and feel.

In crisis times on the worldwide stage – or during critical transition periods in the life of a business – pessimistic leaders don’t suspend the reality, they embrace it. Where an optimist is very happy (literally) to stay the course and forge ahead with positive thinking, those that refuse to (or can’t, maybe) let go of the ugly details of what could happen are more likely to use those details to see different opportunities that others cannot imagine.  

Successful tech entrepreneur and investor Ben Horowitz also addresses the traits of two leadership styles in his post “Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO.” While Horowitz does not specifically address the mental health of these managers, the comparissons he offers do align with some common interpretations of optimism vs. pessimism. Some examples:

  • Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid.
  • Peacetime CEO strives to tolerate deviations from the plan when coupled with effort and creativity. Wartime CEO is completely intolerant.
  • Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions.

While the disparities of these leadership styles may be most highly exploited within top-level government endeavors and global business initiatives, an understanding of these differences is relevant all the way down to the smallest of agencies. On a daily basis we are engaging in smaller “peacetime” growth initiatives with some of our clients and “wartime” tactical operatives with others. For this reason, it is critical to create an environment that supports and encourages both those that pushback, doubt and question as well as the eager optimists.

While there may be organizations that have been built to include only go-getter-super-optimistic types, my guess is that most companies, most agencies, have a mix of people that are scattered along the spectrum of optimism. To be able to appreciate the benefits that this mix can create is to maximize the functionality of your team and your organization.   

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