Optimism and Realism: The Importance of a Glass Half-Full
By Bruce Griffiths M.S.
The research that led to our catalog of 41 Polaris® Competencies was based on analyzing objectively identifiable high performers. Our in-depth interviews with thousands of exemplary leaders revealed both a positive mindset (optimism) and a belief in their ability to affect change, leading to the competency Positive Impact.
It is important to note that these leaders weren’t fuzzy-headed or delusional about threats and challenges, but they believed they could make a difference:
- They had an internal locus of control
- They were NOT controlled by luck or powerful others
- They were optimistic about probable outcomes
All of these characteristics are important to anyone’s mental health but are absolutely essential to those in leadership positions. Optimism is contagious, and prophecies can become self-fulfilling. It’s much easier to follow positive leaders who believe their teams can make a difference.
We must also stress the importance of a leader’s non-verbal behavior in conveying confidence and control. Just saying positive things isn’t enough; a leader’s enthusiasm must be conveyed with non-verbal reinforcements. You must ACT with confidence and enthusiasm if you want to be believed. Any inconsistency between words and action, and your followers will default to action as the REAL message.
Another overlooked element of positivity is having a sense of humor. Being able to laugh appropriately at oneself and with others, humor helps reframe, relieve, and recreate challenges. Moreover, a sense of humor correlates with humility and emotional honesty – very important leadership traits.
Finally, to keep things real, leaders must differentiate between concern and control. You alone can’t solve world hunger, ensure universal peace or boil the ocean, but you can do what you can do. The classic story of the poet and the scientist walking on a beach at low tide and coming upon hundreds of stranded starfish illustrates this point. The scientist notes that there’s not much they can do to save the hundreds (“we can’t make a real difference”), but the poet takes one star at a time and throws it beyond the surf line (“made a difference for that one”).