Even with such an indecisive statement by a world-renowned military leader, there is enough evidence to suggest that leadership and managerial performance do contain natural as well as learned skills. And if the acquired skills merge with an individual’s innate abilities, the outstanding leader is clearly distinguished from the mediocre manager.
Thus, we come down to the mental or psychological dimensions of leadership. Numerous authors, academics, consultants and other practitioners lay claim to understanding and teaching the components of leadership. What follows (today and next three weeks) is a summary of the generally accepted leadership qualities and, if adapted, can enhance your ability to manage people, resources and implement effective business-building opportunities.
The primary qualities include: optimism, insightfulness, straightforwardness, compassion, boldness and strictness.
Intel co-founder Robert Noyce once said that optimism is the essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places? Noyce and his partners started Intel in 1968, a year when the US economy faced the greatest crisis since the Great Depression. In addition, tumultuous events shook the foundation of American society: riots and protests, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was a tough year to start a business but Noyce embraced change and built a brand that changed the world.
Optimistic leaders see the big picture and rally people to a better future. Optimists elicit super human effort. They temper their optimism with logic. They would say: “Maybe it can’t be done, but always start out believing it can be done until facts and analysis pile up against it.” They do not surround themselves by sceptics but don’t shut out sceptics who give them solid counterviews. Great people!
Right kind of optimism
Fostering an optimistic work environment does not mean that you turn into overly affirmative and operate on blind faith that everything will ‘turn out fine’. Nor does it mean that you operate on wishful thinking, striving for unattainable goals and focusing on fantasy desires. You need not be dogmatic, ignoring any discouraging signs and only focusing on positive aspects. You need not be irrational, throwing caution to the wind and overlooking the need for risk assessment.
The optimistic leaders who are needed in today’s workplace embody qualities that include self-awareness, flexibility, self-confidence, initiative, resiliency and adaptability. Whether the CEO, manager or line staff, these optimists employ a system of thinking, feeling and behaving that creates conditions for success. Their optimistic attitude allows them to recognize and redirect unproductive reactions, to think before acting and to choose beneficial responses. Optimism equips them with a perspective that fosters personal accountability, innovative thinking and appropriate risk-taking.
Optimistic leaders are more resilient in the face of failures and setbacks because they understand that failures are part of life and the workplace. When those failures do come, they will adapt to setbacks, get the team moving forward again and get them back on track. Interestingly, this optimism can sometimes lead the leader to underestimate dangers and take more risks than others. But in spite of these few minuses, the benefits of having optimistic leaders outweigh their costs: their confidence in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees and enhance their prospects of prevailing. When action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing.
An added plus in the workplace is the fact that optimistic leader makes everyone smarter. Researchers have shown that optimistic emotions in a workplace actually fuel creativity and enhance every employee’s reasoning skills, creating more successful results. This is because an optimistic mood changes the way the brain processes information. If you’re under stress, feel beaten down, or are in a sad mood, your brain hunkers down. You become more detached and cautious because your brain focuses on what’s wrong and how to eliminate it. On the other hand, when you are in a relaxed, cheerful optimistic mood, your brain opens up. You feel expansive, generous, tolerant and productive.
Optimism can be learned
Optimism can be learned. If you are a natural born optimist, you can cultivate more optimism and born pessimists can become 50 percent more optimistic by learning how to choose thoughts, feelings and behaviours that put them on an upward spiral.
How can you become more optimistic? You can acquire the tools for creating success in the workplace by learning to ask five important questions that allow you to adapt to change and respond to the new demands of today’s competitive marketplace. These are:
1. What can I do to achieve the best possible outcome?
2. What are innovative responses to the situation?
3. What do I need to know to reach a productive conclusion?
4. What can I learn from this situation that will help me in the future?
5. What is an interpretation of this event that will motivate me to continue to strive for excellence and success?
By employing strategies that allow you to put these questions into practice, you become more adept in handling any situation that might arise. When things don’t go your way, don’t waste time and energy thinking, “This always happens to me. I can never get a break.” This kind of pessimistic thinking leads to inaction, helplessness, avoidance and conflict in the workplace. Instead, respond to a difficult situation by focusing your energy on areas of the situation that can be controlled. Figure out ways to solve problems creatively and appraise events objectively in order to find beneficial actions. When there is a setback or mistake, look for insights that will help you improve. And approach difficulties by looking for potential gains.
Optimism pays off
Managers who are optimistic raise the aspirations of people to achieve their individual best by focusing on innovation, problem-solving and creative failures. Customer-service representatives who are optimistic are more likely to connect with the customer and ensure a positive outcome to the interaction. Optimistic line staff will be able to find the positive when the inevitable changes occur in policies and procedures. Salespeople who are optimistic will make more sales. By teaching and fostering optimism in the workplace, you help your employees tap into and use their full potential as you unleash your own capacity for success.
This is an important trait for a leader. It is critical that your team knows that you have their back. Setting audacious goals and having the ability to inspire a team to accomplish monumental successes is something that sets leaders apart. Having the ability to step back and deal with reality during your monumental climb is even rarer.
The motivation and loyalty that is gained by grounding your vision and objectives with a sense of reality is fuel for the rest of your journey. Realistic optimism does not mean backing down from a challenge or settling for what others would say is practical. Rather, it is a trait which balances a leader’s strong passion for driving teams to accomplish exceptional and often results unheard of.
Who are some of the most inspirational leaders that you’ve encountered? Have they demonstrated this balance of audacious goal setting and realism? Do you have stories of how leaders have failed to remain realistic and have lost credibility because of it?
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)