C-Suite Challengers

Optimism: What Every Leader Needs Today

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius

A January 17, 2023, CNBC article, “CEOs are the most pessimistic they’ve been in more than a decade as world faces a slowdown,” said, “Some 73% of CEOs think global growth will decline in the next year, according to a survey by audit firm PwC, confirming the most pessimistic outlook by business leaders for 12 years.”

The Guardian article on the same topic quoted the chair and senior partner at PwC UK, Kevin Ellis, “This isn’t about tinkering but fundamental changes requiring big investment in people, skills and technology.” 

Leaders also need a healthy dose of realistic optimism, which requires acknowledging the challenges while feeling positive about making an impact.

In 2006, Ford Motor Company, a pioneer in the auto industry, faced a meltdown. It was looking at significant losses and facing bankruptcy. Bill Ford, who had taken on the company’s leadership, had been unsuccessful in turning it around and reached out to Alan Mulally, who had engineered the turn-around of Boeing from several disasters. Alan reluctantly agreed, and the rest was history. The book, “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company,” chronicles how he achieved it using a multi-pronged strategy called “One Ford.” Mulally created a vision of Ford as a mobility company, which he conveyed to the employees with infectious optimism.   

Difficult Times Need Innovations

In my book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles, I devoted a chapter to optimism and titled it “Getting Better,” one of The Beatles’ songs. A friend asked me why I didn’t choose “Here Comes the Sun,” a song that conveys the essence of hope, as the title. You need hope, but we cannot expect things to be taken care of automatically. We need the drive, commitment to improving, and conviction to succeed. We need action, and we need innovations.

Innovations are hard to do in an established company such as Ford. It requires a cultural shift, which Mulally accomplished with his strategy. He fostered this cultural shift by bringing the entire company together and establishing a bold vision of transforming it into a mobility company. This transformation included forging strong ties with partners in the consumer technology industry and taking risks.

Risk-taking is essential for innovations, and optimism is necessary for taking risks. The courage to take risks comes about because you are hopeful about the possibilities of the future and are not fearful of failures.  

How Do You Lead with Optimism?  

Here are some tips.

Build on Emotional Intelligence

In the 1998 Harvard Business Review classic, “What makes a leader?” Daniel Goleman says, 

The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities”; that is they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

Self-awareness is the first of four main components that make up emotional intelligence. The others are self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Self-awareness is looking at yourself honestly and seeing who you are—your strengths, weaknesses, values, passions, aspirations, and emotions. When you have self-awareness, it becomes easy to regulate your emotions and manage them. Social awareness helps you understand the needs of others with empathy, which leads to positive relationships with all the stakeholders of your business. Now you have the support of an entire ecosystem behind you. Things that look hopeless become opportunities for innovation and create a contagious feeling of optimism.  

See Through the Lens of Possibilities

When you change how you view setbacks from a lens of failure to a lens of possibilities, you grow your optimism. You realize that there may be failures, but one or two hardships don’t have to be the end. You can reflect on the setback, change your course, move forward, and persevere. You build resiliency when you use your setbacks as experiences to learn from and grow, which feeds into more optimism. Audacity or risk-taking, and optimism go hand in hand. You take risks because you are optimistic about the future, and your rewards from the risks fuel your optimism. 

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude builds positive relationships, and having these relationships makes you feel optimistic about what the future holds. Leaders in today’s complex world need the collective power of positive relationships to affect any transformation. Gratitude can be practiced every day. You could express it by saying thank you when you feel grateful or sending emails and thank you letters. You can also keep a gratitude journal where you record specific instances in a day or a week where you feel thankful to someone. Periodically reviewing the journal will increase your optimism and feeling of well-being.  

Take Care of Yourself

Optimism is hard to practice when your physical or mental health is not good. 

In stressful times, it is vital to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. It is also essential to remain calm and collected to inspire trust. 

Regular exercises, eating right, and sleeping well are critical to your well-being. Walking in nature is good for your physical health and can help you deal with stress. When you feel well, your outlook is positive, and you can tackle any challenge.

Conclusion

Optimism is contagious. When a team hears a leader say something can be done, and we can do it together, the positivity energizes the team members to pull together and deliver the best for the organization’s success. Balancing optimism by acknowledging the challenges creates a realistic environment that promotes actions and results.


Written by Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
Have you read?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves Make—or Break—Our Negotiations by Beth Fisher-Yoshida.
Bridging the Global Gender Gap in STEM by Pari Lennartz.
Changing the World with Entrepreneurship by Rachel Ngom.
Entrepreneurial Endeavours: How To Start Your Own Trade Business.

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Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
Shantha Mohan Ph.D. is an Executive In Residence at the Integrated Innovation Institute, Carnegie Mellon University. Before that, she was a global software engineering leader and entrepreneur, co-founding Retail Solutions Inc., a retail analytics company. Shantha also has over 20 years of experience focused on mission-critical systems to support semiconductor and other high-value-added manufacturing. She is the author of Roots and Wings - Inspiring stories of Indian Women in Engineering and is a co-author of Demystifying AI for The Enterprise - A Playbook for Business Value and Digital Transformation. Her book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles, was published by Taylor & Francis in May 2022.


Shantha Mohan Ph.D. is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.