A strange thing happened on ITV last week (I’m not talking about Love Island). It happened during the Conservative Party leadership debate. Someone weaponised optimism, which is surprising considering optimism has always been viewed as a positive attribute. Perhaps it’s indicative of the gloomy times we live in.
It happened when leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt accused his fellow leadership candidate, Boris Johnson, of ‘peddling optimism’. Hunt meant it as a criticism, not a compliment. The implication was that Boris had nothing to offer other than hope. No concrete policies, no firm answers to the problems the UK faces. In part Hunt was right. Optimism alone isn’t going to solve Brexit, or fund the NHS, or alleviate the national productivity gap, or produce another British Wimbledon champion. But surely it would help? I mean, you wouldn’t want a new Prime Minister who walks through the doors of Number 10 for the first time laden down with pessimism would you?
The accusation Hunt really meant to level against his opponent was that Johnson is peddling ‘blind’ optimism, which is a totally different kettle of fish. Blind optimism is optimism’s evil twin. We can distinguish between the two by calling one ‘realistic’ optimism and the other blind optimism.
Blind optimists take risks and are unprepared, slightly deluded and prone to make ill-judged decisions based on a lack of information and preparedness. Realist optimists on the other hand are positive, but appropriately cautious. They are informed and usually have a plan B. To illustrate further, I’ll use my favourite explanatory device; plots from the Rocky movies (very few things in life can’t be succinctly explained using Rocky-ology).
Cast your minds back to 1982, and Rocky III. In this movie we find Rocky Balboa at the height of his success. Having defended his world heavyweight title ten times, Rocky is rich beyond the dreams of avarice. He spends his time riding around Philadelphia on his Harley, unveiled bad statues of himself and fooling around in the ring with Hulk Hogan. Nothing can touch him. Meanwhile, rising through the ranks is a mean, hungry monster brawler called Clubber Lang, played by Mr T, who got a sabbatical from the A Team. Rocky accepts Clubber’s challenge to a title fight and approaches the endeavour with blind optimism. He is convinced he is going to win, he hasn’t done his homework, he doesn’t train or plan properly. He gets floored by a haymaker in the second and loses his belt. To make matters worse, his long-time trainer Mickey dies (spoiler alert). In the second half of the movie, Rocky’s blind optimism gets replaced by realistic optimism. There is a rematch and this time our hero approaches the task with planning and determination. He has self-belief and cautious confidence. He has the eye of the tiger. He trains properly, but he approaches the task with a more realistic and thoughtful frame of mind.
In terms of leadership, realistic optimism is a valuable trait to have. People will follow realistically optimistic leaders. Think of Churchill during World War Two. While he never sugar-coated the situation or shied away from explaining to the public just how desperate things had become as the Nazis swept across Europe, he always exhibited hopeful determination. People buy into optimism, as long as it is realistic. They tend to get cynical when it’s not.
And the good news is, optimism is not inherent, it is a learnt attribute. Understanding your own explanatory style and reactions to events can help you develop realistic optimism. You can actually practice being optimistic and can becoming more optimistic by developing the right language and thought process. In turn, optimism improves cognitive ability and reduces the chance of suffering from mental health problems. Optimism not only reduces stress, it promotes the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which begins to fade in our thirties, makes us happy, increases motivation, and is even responsible for giving people the courage to take risks. Setting this tone as a leader will have a positive impact on how your team thinking and behave, especially in times of uncertainty. Our Truly Human Leadership programme explores these skills
And so here is a final word of advice for whichever of the contenders becomes the next PM. Leaders display optimism through the language they use and through their explanatory styles. To be optimistic, leaders need to be mindful of negativity in the language they use and the actions they display (pay heed Hunt and Johnson). In times of challenge people can tend to fall into the trap of subconsciously using negative language. They get caught up in negative thought patterns. This is a common cognitive error we at Laughology call wonky thinking. There seems to an epidemic of it in the political establishment at present, so to help our next PM become a better leader, here are our top tips for overcoming wonky thinking and developing realistic optimism:
One mistake affecting all areas of life: “I’m such a failure or we’ll never achieve it now.”
Tends to blame self and not look at attributing factors: “It’s all my fault, I never get it right.”
Feels like the situation will last forever. “This is what always happens, I might as well not even bother.”
Doesn’t generalise or skirt round the issue but use positive language to talk about it. Instead of saying “There are things that need fixing, nothing is right.” It might be better focusing on specifics such as “We need to work on increasing customer retention by focusing on costs for long term customers”.
Tends to look at circumstances of situation, enabling a brighter solution: “That was a particularly difficult call.” Or “It’s going to be a difficult next quarter but if we…” – Rather than - “I always get the bad customer.”
Nothing lasts forever: “Tomorrow is another day.” Or “We will get through this.”