Manager Superpower Series #2: Optimism

In the book Winning, the legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch defines his rules of leadership:

Rule 3: Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism…your job as a leader is to fight the gravitational pull of negativism. That doesn’t mean you sugarcoat the challenges your team faces. It means you display an energizing, can-do attitude about overcoming them.

I couldn’t agree more. How many truly optimistic managers do you see on a day to day basis? Not people that are so over-leveraged that fear pushes them to hope everything works out. Not people who ignore hard truths and escape into a good Spotify playlist.

Optimistic managers. Managers who see the world for what it is - a never-ending grind full of challenges, bad-breaks, luck, let-downs, inspirations, and everything in between - and approach it with a consistently positive energy and will to make things work.

The answer: not enough. Here are some ways you can uplevel your optimism.

To be optimistic, don’t:

  • Commiserate regularly with your reports. Commiseration is a little forfeit, every time. As a leader, you shouldn’t be signalling that the way to react to adversity is to lament. The film Saving Private Ryan calls this out beautifully: “Gripes only go up the chain of command, never down. Privates gripe to sergeants, sergeants gripe to captains, captains gripe to majors, majors gripe to colonels and colonels gripe to generals. Gripes always go up, never down.”
  • Otherize other teams in the org. Or more bluntly: don’t talk shit about other teams. They might not be perfect, but neither are you. Otherizing only makes it harder to find the path forward.
  • Pretend like everything is great. Again, optimism isn’t about pretending things are great. It’s a commitment to framing things as challenges to be solved, not problems to be lamented.

To be optimistic, do:

  • Have a never-ending well of persistence. You might feel like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill day in and day out. Optimistic people understand that most of one’s work life is pushing boulders up hills and have a good attitude about it.
  • Get over things. If you can’t reset your opinion on people, problems, slights, and all other things to an absolute neutral, you’ll be saddled with a distracting and deteriorating buildup of resentment. Learn to get over things completely.
  • Commit. If you’re second guessing yourself every step of the way you’ll never be able to sustain optimism. Set some timeframe for re-evaluation - maybe 6 months or a year - and then forget about anything that sounds like “maybe”.

Optimism isn’t a feeling that puffs your lungs up with rejuvenating life and leads to transcendent moments of inspiration. It’s removing the friction that your ego and backbone want to instinctively introduce when faced with challenges. It’s a way to move forward.