Are You Too Optimistic? Great Leaders need to Face Reality

by The Architect on Aug 31, 2016

This week's blog is a highlight from a full essay: 'Are You Too Optimistic? Optimism and Leadership' by the Hub's founder Phil Dourado.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Admiral Jim Stockdale

Admiral Jim Stockdale talking to Jim Collins about his time in the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam. The optimists, said the Admiral, died first. (1) Collins called this ‘The Stockdale Paradox’.

Optimism and positivism on its own isn’t enough to inspire people

There is too much optimism in business. Leaders talk themselves and their business up. Great leaders confront their reality.

“Turn your face violently towards things as they exist now. Not as you’d like them to be, not as you think they were ten years ago, not as they’re written about in sacred texts, but as they really are: the contradictory, stony ground of the present…” Antonio Gramsci, Italian political theorist

Ouch. Try inspiring people with that and see if they walk into work with a spring in their step.

Gramsci suggests becoming and showing others to be:

“a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will.”

Maybe tweaking Gramsci’s phrase to become a sceptic of the intellect and an optimist of the will’ tips the balance in favour of realistic optimism, rather than still leaving us with that negative word ‘pessimist’.

The One and the Many

Leaders are at their best when they are confronting reality (2); when they are in synch with the people and markets they lead and serve – connected by a ‘gut instinct’ telling you what is happening and what to do. Synchronicity is the ideal state.

It’s about tapping into and being part of the zeitgeist – the complex ‘state of things’ – being synchronized or in tune with what’s going on out there in the markets and with your people. Confronting reality by being immersed in it, not distant from it, in other words.

Organizational effectiveness gurus like to think that everything is most effective when aligned. But, people, markets, culture, emergent trends… none of these things are linear – moving in a straight line – nor static, nor can they be placed alongside each other in straight lines to ‘align’ them. Most importantly, none of these are things you can control.

The relationship between the one and the many (where is the ‘control over events’ that leaders used to think they had?) is at the heart of leadership. Lord Byron put it this way:

“And when we think we lead we are mostly led.”

© Phil Dourado. This is just a snippet: See the full article on

(1) Good to Great’, Jim Collins. Collins calls the ability to confront the brutal truth and still retain belief that you will prevail The Stockdale Paradox.

(2) Confronting Reality’, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.

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