Achieve Your Leadership Goals and Objectives by Harnessing the Power of “Rational Optimism”

Do you see the glass as half empty or half full? No matter what your answer is, the truth is that the glass and its contents are constant. Your answer to that question, though, reveals your attitudes and perceptions. Clearly, the lens through which we view the world matters. And it absolutely matters in leadership. […]
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Do you see the glass as half empty or half full?

No matter what your answer is, the truth is that the glass and its contents are constant. Your answer to that question, though, reveals your attitudes and perceptions.

Clearly, the lens through which we view the world matters. And it absolutely matters in leadership.

Let’s say, for example, that your answer to the half-empty-or-half-full question is “half full.” In that case, you may be under the influence of optimism bias. Optimism bias guides our perception through a filter of positivity, urging us to believe that good things are more likely to happen than bad things. This mental shortcut urges leaders to overestimate the likelihood of expected positive outcomes and to underestimate the results of risky decisions and the probability of negative outcomes.

While optimism can be quite a positive trait, there are some dangers. The phenomenon of optimism is attributed to psychological factors including wishful thinking and the tendency to focus on positive thoughts rather than unpleasant ones. Rational thinking doesn’t always factor into decision-making when optimism bias is at the helm; instead, emotion often takes precedence.

Let’s give this discussion some perspective. If you are what I call a “Captain of Sails”–meaning you fall into the “glass-half-full” camp–this may be sobering to hear. However, take heart: it is possible to make the optimism bias work for you.

Captains of Sails

Captains of Sails, or commercially oriented leaders, are typically optimists who view the future as the opportunity to create their destiny. They will almost always view the glass as half full.

With winds of optimism at their back, these leaders sail away from the status quo in the pursuit of lofty aspirations and possibilities. Captains of Sails give everything a positive twist, finding they can rationalize just about anything. And they do.

These captains are influencers with strong interpersonal and relationship-nurturing skills. Trusting, contactable, self-confident, and enthusiastically persuasive, Captains of Sails inspire others. They promote new ideas and products. They inspire visions of hope and often, emotion is a key factor in their decisions.

With an ability to read verbal and nonverbal cues, these leaders tend to have a sixth sense about their customers’ needs and wants. With sense and skill, they build incredible relationships and help their customers achieve their dreams.

Optimism can be one of the greatest strengths of these leaders, making them confident and resilient. But optimism bias also produces blind spots when it comes to risk, causing distortions in mental processing–twisted judgment, tangled decision-making, and even reckless choices.

The Downside of Optimism

You might be asking: what’s wrong with seeing the glass half full or focusing on a positive future? I get it: it’s no secret that optimism can be a powerful tool in leadership. But what happens when optimism goes too far?

While the upside of optimism does indeed have a glow to it, the problem is that the glow can be blinding, causing these captains to venture into risky waters unprepared. A step too far can be detrimental because this bias will hijack a leader’s mind, creating the potential for failure. Optimism can drive leaders into a state of blind confidence, distracting them from important information and causing them to overestimate their ability believing they can control outcomes.

Not only that–when other biases that move in a direction similar to optimism are also in play, such as the illusion of control bias, potential consequences become even graver. In these instances, leaders may ignore risk warning signals or doubt expert advice, leading to costly mistakes. And on a macro level, excessive optimism can prevent organizations from adapting quickly enough in the face of changing conditions.

Captain Marty: Optimism Sinks the Bottom Line

During a client engagement, I had the opportunity to work with a proud sales captain we’ll call Marty. He led the commercial business for the largest division within a multi-billion-dollar global company. It was well known across the company that Captain Marty was the leader of the highest revenue-producing group in the region.

He built an empire of sales managers, and his group’s revenue continually climbed. Achieving a robust top line, this captain believed he was “in control” of his business. He encouraged his team to do whatever it took to make customers happy and get the sale. They proceeded to do just that, and as revenue climbed, so did Marty’s reputation across his region and the entire company.

However, Marty was selectively focused on revenue generation and the top line. His superiors began to grow increasingly concerned about his lack of attention to the bottom line. Marty remained optimistic and sailed forward, convinced his top-line strategy would take care of the bottom line and that he would prevail in the end.

At the end of the year, while the numbers revealed Marty’s revenue was indeed sky-high, the financials also showed he was the least profitable sales leader in his region. Like many Captains of Sails, Marty’s optimism was compromised by selective perception. Optimistically and selectively focused on his goal to be the top revenue-producing business in the region, sadly, he became its top expense-producing business – destroying margins and profit.

Navigating Optimism Bias

Now that you understand some of the dangers posed by optimism bias, the question is how to ensure it works for rather than against you. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Can I recall a situation where my optimism about an initiative’s success led to unforeseen challenges? How did I handle it, and what did I learn?
  • Do I exhibit overconfidence in my own abilities or the abilities of my team, assuming that we can overcome obstacles easily?
  • Do I proactively develop contingency plans or risk mitigation strategies for potential negative outcomes, or do I assume things will go as I imagine?
  • Do I downplay potential problems or risks?
  • Do I tend to believe positive outcomes are more likely to happen than negative outcomes?

Once you’ve conducted an honest assessment of how optimism bias might affect you, it’s time to start implementing some strategies to harness its power. First and foremost, learn to question why your optimistic dream may be wrong, and list specific reasons that disprove the assumption. As you do, identify threats that can compromise the journey including a strong emotional attachment to the dream. To help you, seek input and insights from team members known for their cautious or pessimistic outlook.

Next, chart the “ambitious” route. Assess the probability of success supported by clear evidence. List what you can control, what you can’t, and why. Imagine the dream drowning. Identify who’s going down with it and identify potential points of failure. At the same time, leverage preemptive pessimism to urge preparedness. Develop contingency plans and risk mitigation strategies for a variety of possible negative scenarios. And finally, hold on to your integrity, regardless of deteriorating circumstances.

Turn Your Dreams to Outcomes

Optimism bias is one of many cognitive biases that get in the way of effective leadership. When you implement the strategies listed above, you can achieve “rational optimism.” Rational optimism is the ideal convergence between the helpful attributes of optimistic thinking and the helpful attributes of pessimistic thinking.

Optimists naturally want to steer clear of dream doubters because they never want the wind taken out of their sails. Ironically, however, considering a pessimistic-leaning perspective can often positively shift the sails for optimists, enhancing their ability to foresee future dangers.

Optimism alone is a fast ship that crashes. Pessimism alone is a ship that never leaves the dock. Combined? Rational optimism sails slow and steady, eventually allowing leaders to achieve their dreams.

For more advice on how to turn optimism into rational optimism, you can find strategies in Mind Knots: Understanding The Cognitive and Emotional Biases That Prevent Rational Leadership on Amazon. You can also visit for more information on optimism bias and many other biases that impact leadership.

Reinforce your leadership with practical insights, intel, and frameworks you can use to sharpen your leadership edge by subscribing to LeaderEdge today.

Lisa Tromba leads LTA–Lisa Tromba Associates, (formerly Luisi Tromba Advisors, of which she was co-founder), and she is the founder of Leadership Intelligence Services, LLC. For more than 25 years, Tromba has guided companies from lower and mid market enterprises to Fortune 100 powerhouses in searching for and selecting their executive leadership. Today, she caters to lower-to mid-market companies in search of executive leadership. Her high-touch, high-impact, solution-oriented approach includes assessing the impact of psychological bias on leadership.

Tromba has spoken on leadership topics to corporate, trade, and academic audiences, including Executive MBA participants. Publications featuring her work include Authority Magazine, Training Industry Magazine, Chief Executive Magazine, and AMA Quarterly, among others. She is the author Mind Knots and she is quoted int he book From Cinderella to CEO.

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