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Do you have to be an optimist to be a leader?

In a video interview with TheRoot.com, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice offers an interesting take on leadership. The video clip is about five minutes long and worth watching in full, but here are a couple quotes that I liked:

  • "The best leaders are people who have that vision that pushes people to think about what's possible but shows them a realistic way to get there."
  • "We sometimes decry vision and we talk about people being too idealistic, but if you are not an idealist—if you're not an optimist—then you can't lead."

I had never thought of leadership in these terms before, specifically that a leader has to be an optimist, but after some thought I've decided I agree. I like that perspective on leadership and that concept of an optimist. An optimist has a positive outlook not because she has blind faith in positive outcomes but because she has a realistic vision for how to make those positive outcomes happen.

This advice is good for association leaders, who have to inspire and guide such a diverse group of followers: board, staff, committee volunteers, chapter leaders, rank-and-file members, and so on. Being able to inspire each of those groups and show them how they each contribute to fulfilling your association's goals and strategy is no easy task.

The question in the title of this post may be a silly one, because who really wants to follow a pessimist? But I'm curious for your thoughts. Are the best leaders you know consistently optimists, as well?



I really wanted to argue with you Joe, but I find it hard to do so. I was trying to picture a pessimistic leader and couldn't quite do it. So then I thought about why I wanted to argue with you in the first place, and I think it's because it rubs me the wrong way whenever anyone says to be a leader you have to be XX. And then it hit me, that's my argument.

It's too simplistic to say you need to be an optimist to be a leader. Everyone has a degree of optimism and a degree of pessimism. I believe the person leading successfully is the person who is going to choose the right times to be optimistic and the right times to be pessimistic. Be optimistic all the time and you will appear phony to all but zealots and yes-people. Be pessimistic all the time and no one will be able to stand to be around you. Leadership is about figuring out the balance of all things: optimism, pessimism; action, inaction; fast, slow; add, subtract; etc.; etc. so that desired and beneficial outcomes are generated. And that's why a sustained leadership role is so hard and so fleeting -- circumstances are constantly forcing you to shift to maintain that balance.

I've had the pleasure of working for a pessimistic boss before. Despite starting a very successful company, they were constantly assuming we wouldn't land a big deal or that for some freak reason payroll wouldn't be met (despite no indicators of that ever happening). For him, his negative attitude kept him motivated and driven to work that much harder. He was constantly convinced he was on the brink of failure and that if he let up for just a minute, he would do just that. Of course, his negative attitude was incredibly toxic to the rest of staff and I credit that workforce for my first ulcer at the age of 22.

I think more than optimism and pessimism, motivation is most important. If you can't get people to get off their rears and pushing ahead, you have no reason to be in a leadership position. Like Scott said, finding the right balance is crucial.

Realism and optomism go together. You should be realistic about what can be achieved and optimistic about the ability to achieve it.

Thanks Scott, Joe, and David. You've each offered a unique perspective on this idea of a leader's optimism.

Scott, agreed that no single quality automatically makes someone a leader. I'm curious, though, if any single negative qualities automatically disqualify someone as a leader. Perhaps being a pessimist?

Joe, I hope you left that job quickly after it gave you an ulcer. It doesn't surprise me that your boss's pessimism was a source of his self-motivation, but constantly stressing out everyone around you is not a good leadership quality. Yikes.

David, your note about "realism" is a good one. A lot of pessimists might call like to call themselves realists. I don't know where the distinction might lie, but as Scott mentioned, that balance is important, between optimism and whatever you want to call the alternative.

Thanks again, all. On a related note, later this week I happened upon this short article from MIT Sloan Management Review: "Why It Pays To Be an Optimist." It cites research that says optimistic people tend to find jobs more easily and get promoted more quickly and that "people who are optimistic by disposition are good at coping with problems and flexible about trying new courses of action when needed." Those sound like good leadership skills to me.

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