Leadership is not contingent on one’s rank within a company. Being a CEO or executive may make us someone’s boss, but we’re not thereby crowned a leader. Leadership is more a learned way of operating than it is an attribute accompanying a position. That being said, leaders can be found and grow at any level. 

Great leaders become most notable in times of workplace crisis. With the current state of affairs in our country and the world at large due to the pandemic, almost every business is affected, experiencing limitations and having to adjust quickly to previously unknown circumstances. Those with strong leadership skills will find themselves utilizing one of the most valuable tools they have: optimism.

Optimism can be developed by any person at any time, but it proves most valuable in trying and uncertain times, as the one we’re currently in. Optimism is more complex a practice than meets the eye, and it’s a skill that can be sharpened in any setting. 

According to Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, “Optimism is an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?” In crises, we’re forced to exercise new ways of thinking and explore previously unchartered territory. Innovation is necessary, but innovation is impossible without optimism. 

Optimism vs. Positivity

Optimism and positivity are often used interchangeably. While they both imply similar attitudes, they have distinctions that reflect very different realities. 

Positivity means we say everything is okay, even when it’s not. With positivity comes the act of pretending while ignoring reality. Professional optimist Jen Waldman describes being positive as living in a fantasy world. In her podcast, The Long and The Short Of It, Waldman expands on the idea of positivity, “…living in a fantasy world is disregarding reality because it’s more convenient for you.” 

For a non-essential small business owner during the pandemic to smile and say that their business will be just fine and encounter no hardship is an example of positivity. Sure, we hope that’s the case, but in reality, their business will likely lose money, customers, and employees. While they may not want to accept the unfavorable outcomes, they do hold truth. 

Optimism, on the other hand, does not deny what is. Optimism is not naive and it is not pretending. Simon Sinek, leadership expert, defines optimism as “the fundamental belief that there is a light and we’re heading towards it.” Being optimistic means recognizing reality, accepting the facts, and believing that there is a brighter future ahead.

Using the same example of a small business owner, an optimistic outlook would begin with acknowledging short term losses that come with this global crisis. From there, a business owner would find ways each day to improve their business plan from the experience and vehemently believe in a favorable outcome. 

Steps of Optimism

The first step to embracing optimism is embracing reality. Waldman states that “in order to be optimistic one must first accept.” Living in a fantasy world is not real and can actually set us back in the struggle to achieve our goals. If we want our outcomes to be real, then we must first embrace our starting point as real. Accept the scope and effects of the circumstance– both positive and negative. 

The next step would be recognizing our constraints– the limitations that we have no control over. Oftentimes, we see constraints as barriers– the road is blocked, and we now have to find and pursue an alternate route, right? 

…No. Instead, we can adjust our reaction to limitations. Peter Shepherd, coach and co-host of Waldman’s podcast, explains two approaches, “Our default posture can sometimes be, ‘No, because of this constraint.’ And the inverse is almost like, ‘Okay, here’s the constraint. So I can do this, if we have blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’” We can still accomplish our goals by shifting the focus from what the constraint is preventing us from doing, and turn the conversation to how the constraint is igniting a new way of thinking. 

For example, one of the biggest limitations impacting businesses and their employees right now is the edict that they can’t all be together in person at work. Rather than labeling the lack of human geographical interaction and easy access to other employees’ knowledge a negative effect of the constraint, we can direct our attention toward devising an alternative gameplan. Implementing more video conferences, IM conversations, phone calls, and emails are all ways to accomplish the goal of human interaction while under the limitation of working from home. 

Lastly, chaotic times call for a change in protocols and ways of thinking. Effective and successful change takes time. With an optimistic approach to our innovation process, take small steps at a time. “You can’t hack change,” Waldman states. We can ask ourselves each day what we can do better from the day before. If we are consistent with working on weaknesses and constraints in small steps, change will happen. Having an optimistic approach is all about believing that effective and lasting change will happen. 

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An optimistic mindset is a valuable tool for all situations, but even more so when experiencing chaotic times and uncertainty. We can’t lead people if we don’t know where we’re going, and people won’t follow us if we have no goal or belief in something good to come. Leaders at all levels can develop and display an optimistic attitude and impact their workplaces with innovation.

For a more detailed approach on how to build leadership skills when encountering workplace euphoria, turmoil, and everything in between, reach out to Knowted and ask about our executive coaching service

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