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8th January 2021 David Webster

The optimistic leader in pessimistic times: hope vs experience?

We have an optimistic Prime Minister in Boris Johnson. He is however one living in pessimistic times. Surely this is helpful? When listening to him I feel strangely reassured by his use of language, his personal tone, his display of emotion.

However, when the UK government says that it will deliver 13.5m vaccines within 5 weeks, from what appears to be a standing start, thereby starting bringing to an end the series of lockdowns, I am conflicted. Targets for test and trace have fallen by the wayside, vaccinators are still being trained, and centres established. Am I being pessimistic or realistic? Or is this actually what my father would describe as ‘the triumph of hope over experience’?

An extreme experience can help us here.

The Stockdale Paradox

U.S Admiral James Stockdale was a Vietnam prisoner of war in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ from 1965 to 1973. He survived a regime of brutality not knowing if he would see his family again. Jim Collins of Good to Great fame, expressed the Admiral’s mindset as the Stockdale Paradox. This is useful to us now when faced with the on-going trial of lockdown. When asked how he survived, the Admiral said he hoped he would be released but accepted the reality of the situation. He retained faith that he would win out; but confronted the reality of incarceration. Others fell by the wayside as their hope turned into expectation of imminent release, only to be cruelly disappointed.

So: Keep the faith; accept reality.

We are learning a lot of about optimism, pessimism…and reality

Optimism is an attractive quality – a mantra I heard repeated the other day is ‘it is better to be surrounded by radiators (radiating optimism) rather than drains’ (pessimists who sap energy). Clearly true unless the optimism is inauthentic and seeks to adjust the facts to suit a good story.

In discussing current situation in the UK with friends and colleagues, where we are currently undergoing our third national lockdown and “stay-at-home order” in 12 months, it occurred to us that we are learning more about optimism and pessimism as a nation. Research on the two, now stretches back over many decades. Some see optimism as a disposition or embedded part of our personality; others see it as the way in which we ascribe cause or simply explain events – our ‘attributional style’.

Much of the research concludes that optimism (predicting success, improvement, and adaptability) has positive psychological effects – on mental health and quality of life even in adversity, for instance if you have cancer, more intrinsic motivation at work and greater career success. The good news is that optimism can be learned by shifting the way that one thinks about events and one’s part in them.

As leading Clinical Psychologist Martin Seligman comments: “Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” So worth doing some learning then.

Sustainable leadership is required

Finally, an interesting article by the McKinsey quarterly in March 2020 recommended that leaders display two instrumental sets of behaviours which I suggest will be sustainable and radiate the ‘warmth of hope’:

  • Deliberate calm they describe as the ability to detach from situations and think clearly about how the team will navigate them. The hallmarks of ‘deliberate calm’ they describe as ‘humility’ rather than hubris; as learning as you go rather than ‘helplessness’ in the face of novel challenges.
  • Bounded optimism they describe as confidence combined with realism. Displaying authentic confidence is to share that you predict success based on team’s ability to learn to find its way through this; to navigate its way successfully. It is ‘bounded’ because realism suggests that there may well be events over which the team has no control, which may overwhelm it.

So keep learning and face the reality while retaining a grounded hope. Then you will be a radiator that is based on sustainable fuel…

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