Optimism as a leadership attribute matters! I completely believe this. There are some organizations that I work with where the degree of pessimism is so omnipresent, that it is painful to even talk about the future. Yet, in our work on Virtuoso Teams, we found, emphatically, that teams, and individuals, who believed in themselves and their ability to change the world were often able to fulfill that dream. Anyone who has ever watched Apollo 13 knows full-well that without Gene Kranz's belief in his team, the three astronauts adrift in space would never have returned. Kranz never gave anyone the chance to be pessimistic, or even skeptical.
Today, in casual reading of two blog sites that I occasionally look at, I was struck by a coincidence of conclusions that speak directly to positivism as a leadership trait. Jeffrey Phillips, on his Thinking Faster blog posting "Management Throttle," January 17, 2008, talks about how important a postive attitude is for a leadership team, and how it sets the stage for others in the organization to buy into. Bob Sutton, who is a Professor of Engineering and Management Science at Stanford, and an IDEO Fellow, has written, on his Work Matters blog site, a posting entitled "John Bolton: Even The Economist Thinks He's an Asshole," January 17, 2008, about how Bolton's "known history of demeaning and disrespecting others" leads to a situation where, in The Economist's words: "this undeniably talented man of principle often comes across as a domineering bully." Domineering bullies fail in almost every way to achieve the positive attitude that great teams feed upon.
Optimism/postivisim, whether about the likelihood of acheiving a goal [the what's], or the capability of a team to achieve it [the how's and the who's], are essential to releasing talent; while negativism about either what's, how's or who's tend to inevitably diminish talent, and achievement. I am reminded in this regard about an unmailed letter to the editor that I had written on the occasion of John Bolton's appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. I tried to draw a comparison between the teams of the Virtuoso Teams project, most of whom could be charitably characterized as led by "nuts" with their obsessions of the dramatic visions that might be achieved, and those led by bullies. You'll recall that at time that Bolton had been characterized in congressional hearings, as a bullie. I don't know Bolton, and have no first0-hand impression of management style, but I've seen plenty of bullies in my time, and I know that bullies are never good for anyone, or any organization, ever. What I wrote at that time was:
In the Virtuoso Teams book, we’ve studied a number of successful leaders: Miles Davis, Jerome Robbins & Leonard Bernstein, Sid Caesar, Thomas Edison, Roald Amundsen, Groves & Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project, and the like. Not all of them were nice people, but they all did amazing things, in unconventional ways, and they each changed our world for the better. In every instance, it was how they built their team, and how they treated the individuals within that team, that made the difference. They were not easy; they pushed and stretched and demanded far more than most people were prepared to give, but they did it a way that enlarged the talent of their people rather than diminished it. They were always positive, never negative; about their goals, and about the capabilities of the people that they surrounded themselves with.
As a result, they wound up not only changing their field, but also preparing the next generation leadership for that field. One benefit was that they each had an edge over their competition in great ideas, and they each took full-advantage of the diversity within their teams to really unleash distinctly new ways of thinking about the world to make a difference. Were they tough? Absolutely! Were they abusive? Never! Nuts, maybe; not bullies! The “nuts” all realized that talented individuals can give more if they are stretched, recognized, given opportunities to shine, and appreciated for their contributions. The bullies, on the other hand, are so intent on reaching their own personal goals that they crush the talent entrusted to them and never reach the limits that are possible.
The acid test is always: how does the assembled talent look back on the experience? Those who worked for “nuts” almost always refer to the experiences with affection. Those who worked for the bullies typically wind-up before Congressional committees.