The Leader as Chief Optimism Officer


Leading in this world is suddenly much harder. Our organisations face climate change, the generation divide, Industry 4 and the movement for ESG (environment, social and governance). The pandemic has made us all realise how much challenge is ahead.

In this "hard world", how can you be an effective leader?

My view that the leader needs to be the "Chief Optimism Officer" is a clarion call for hope through optimism, energy, and mindfulness, paving your organizational pathway from anxious to awesome, describing a kinder and less individualistic future. These leadership attributes prepare an organisation for the skills arms race and how to win the battle for the best.

Atlassian Corporation Plc started in Australia and is a global software company helping teams around the world unleash their potential. The firm has 200,000+ customers and a team of 6,000+ "Atlassians".

They faced the same issue many corporates struggle with. Dom Price is Work Futurist at Atlassian, and he expresses the challenge this way: "There are so many organisations going through some type of change or transformation who want to stay relevant, want to reinvent themselves, want to be customer-centric, want more innovation to empower and trust their people. But they tell their people to be curious, creative and innovative then measure them based on how many tasks they completed that day. It feels like a jarring conversation."

So, Price and Atlassian created a more optimistic organisation that measures effectiveness, learning and personal confidence – as well as productivity.

Decisions for each team are team-led, not top-down, which again shows optimism and confidence that people will produce good outcomes if you give them power and flexibility. Pessimists would stick with a top-down control approach.

As Price says: "Essentially, you want people to build their own adventure and retain the balance of a happy life with mental and physical health as well.".

This case is a reminder that if you approach this new hard world with old leadership skills, you will likely be swept aside. This applies from top to bottom, from CEO's through to new hires. It applies to corporations, education, politics, community groups and charities.

In a very different application of optimism, Ben Crowe, former Nike marketing executive became a mindset coach to world number one tennis player, Ash Barty, the Australian cricket team and other leaders in sport by optimistically realising he was worth chasing his goals and dreams. He did it for himself – and now he does it for others.

Crowe wants us to think about who we are at our absolute best - making the point that while we tend to see success in terms of status and achievement, he sees it as the kind of human we want to be. Who am I, What do I want and How do I get there?

With his optimistic mindset you drop focusing on what is outside our control, and look directly at which direction we can go in.

He teaches leaders principles such as gratitude, appreciation and celebration – rather than getting caught up in expectation or entitlement.

The optimist sees life is to be enjoyed or endured – enjoy the good, endure the bad. Setbacks and disappointments are just things to deal with along the way. Mostly they are not personal and always they are not permanent, according to the optimist. In summary, the optimist sees setbacks as temporary and to be overcome and never (or only rarely) sees setbacks as personal, inevitable and permanent.

Optimism is proven to have health benefits, and we know that leadership stresses can damage our health. It is strongly linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events. A 2018 study by the American College of Cardiology attributes this in part to the fact that "Optimists persevere by using problem-solving and planning strategies to manage stressors." A 2021 Scientific Statement by The American Heart Association maps the pathways by which negative emotions cause physical illness and why optimism lowers the risk of poor heart-health.

A 2019 University of Illinois study shows people who are the most optimistic tend to be better sleepers. So too a 2020 Vienna Medical School study shows the same link and also makes the point that better sleep helps enhance optimism.

A recent OECD Study on Social and Emotional Skills in schools found, "Emotional stability skills are found to be the most predictive of mental health. Optimism has the highest relation to life satisfaction scores".

Optimism may also help you live longer - Dr Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution said, "The link between optimism and longevity is strong."

What mindset can shift a leader to optimism for this hard world?

Albert Einstein, the most popular scientist of a century, told us we human beings experiences ourselves, our thoughts and feelings "as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us." That is, it drives us to selfishness and fear. Einstein issued the challenge: "Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

The optimism that helps you function better as a leader is not blind optimism, but a realistic and infectiously optimistic leadership.

The global leader of positive psychology Professor Martin Seligman, says, "The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder."

This view is shared by former Australian Member of Parliament, Victor Perton, who has created The Centre for Optimism. He says: "I have been a lifelong optimist. Like most optimists, I have my share of grief and failure, but I always think that things will work out alright in the end."

Professor Martin Seligman has the view that we need to work on creating that optimistic perspective: "The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately". To refocus the mind, Seligman suggests a simple exercise called "Put It in Perspective," which starts by conjuring the worst-case scenario, which our minds tend to do first, then moves to best-case scenario, and finishes with the most likely scenario. The idea is to redirect your thoughts from irrational to rational – and that way you can lead others.

From these experts in optimism, leaders can regularly ask three questions of those they seek to lead:

  •  What makes you optimistic?
  •  What would be your best self in 5 years?
  •  Have I put things in perspective?

An Indian business leader who combined optimism and strong values was Ratan Tata, former Chairman of Tata Group and recipient of India's most distinguished civilian awards – Padma Bhushan as well as Padma Vibhushan.

Apart from his business acumen, it was his mindset – a combination of optimism, grit and determination - that led to the expansion of the TATA group at the global map.

London-based Tetley Tea, South Korea's Daewoo Motors, Anglo-Dutch steel manufacturer Corus Group, UK-based Jaguar and Land Rover are some of the international acquisitions and purchases under his leadership. These transformed Tata Group.

Finally, optimism makes innovation possible. The recently retired head of the Australian Prime Minister's Department Dr Martin Parkinson, put this well: "Optimism drives curiosity which in turn fosters innovation and invention. So, whatever the challenges we face, it's better to tackle them with an optimistic bent, confident that nothing is insurmountable given enough will and effort."

I can vouch for the importance of optimism – for many years I tried pessimism and I did not like it. I found that pessimism drains energy and makes failure concrete. Only optimism opens you to a new world of possibilities – and a new way to lead.

John Hagel, Advisory Board Member, Centre for Optimism, has spent over 40 years advising in Silicon Valley and is the author of several books – he puts it very well: "There are two types of people in the world - energy drainers and energy amplifiers. Optimistic people are energy amplifiers, especially if their optimism comes from the passion of the explorer. The more optimistic people connect with each other, the more energy they can generate together - it will go exponential."

True leaders aspire to be "energy amplifiers" – through optimism.

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