Effective leaders should be optimistic, right? Optimism, however, is not necessarily a sign an effective leader. The level of optimism someone has in order to be effective unfortunately presents the same whether the individual actually has the qualifications being considered. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology measured individuals’ optimism regarding their own performance. There were positive and negative results.
Good news: People who did well in their performance were optimistic about their results.
Bad news: The people who did poorly were also optimistic.
What’s more, the people who did poorly on the test were much more resolute in not wanting to improve after finding out they weren’t as great as they originally thought.
The people who need the most improvement are the least likely to want it. Go figure.
Given these study results, optimism towards one’s own expertise and performance is not really a good indicator of effective leadership. If an ineffective leader has optimism about his abilities, he could potentially be overestimating his ability, equaling that of an effective leader. Essentially, the ineffective leader refuses to see their shortcomings.
Too Much Optimism
There are plenty of examples of this in the news almost daily between business and politics, but I’m going to focus on a smaller company. With the rollout of their startup, Bodega, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan released a marketing campaign that positioned their company as competition for family-owned corner stores. This was ill-received by the public and the founders received large backlash on social media. In response, McDonald released a response on their blog that was equally received with general disapproval by the public. As a self-touted “Googler” (ex-Google employee), McDonald is an example of a leader whose optimistic view of his expertise in the field of technology in any industry and performance of their marketing strategy led to his letter of defense.
While the reply letter does not exhibit an expedient escape in a straightforward denial of the feedback’s relevance, McDonald’s response does mildly invalidate the accuracy of the feedback. In his attempt to clarify specific issues, he makes implications that people do not understand what their company is about, explaining that “Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal”. In the Fast Company article, he is quoted as saying, “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out.” In his apparent contradiction, he displays a form of dismissing the negative feedback by suggesting it isn’t accurate. This seems to be the only escape available because questioning the relevancy of public feedback is not an option, as they are the customer.
McDonald also published his letter the same day as the Fast Company article, displaying a quick-fire reaction with a potential lack of considering his 360-degree feedback. This type of feedback provides a comparison between how you perceive yourself against how others perceive you. This type of feedback would most likely have shown disparity between how he views himself versus that of others.
Trade Optimism for Self-Awareness
Next time you’re looking for a leader, don’t put a lot of weight on their optimistic outlook toward the future. Instead, look at how that leader examines themselves and makes an effort to improve themselves. Perspective is not necessarily easy to acquire, but it yields priceless returns on the investment required. Our ability to see ourselves from someone else’s viewpoint is a critical leadership quality.
I agree, in part, with Popeye when he said, “I yam what I yam.” Unfortunately, that applies to other people’s expectations of you. In other words, don’t be someone you’re not.
When it comes to your acknowledgement of how developed you are, you need to look not only from the inside out, but also from the outside in.
At one point in Elon Musk’s childhood, he had read every book in his local library. He got so in tune with himself and how he fit into the world, he was able build a confidence that has led him to found and lead some of the most revolutionary organizations today. Musk surrounds himself with leaders in their industry. He wants people who can help him think outside the box to accomplish what previously seemed impossible.
Musk certainly has optimism – but more importantly, he has self-awareness. He realizes that no matter how many books he reads, he cannot do things by himself; that requires acknowledging how accurately someone perceives themselves. Musk’s self-awareness stems from his belief in taking feedback so that he doesn’t continuously believe something that’s wrong.
So he doesn’t continuously believe something that’s wrong. What a novel idea.
Check out my analysis of the Bodega response post, breaking down where they went wrong, in How Not to Reply to Social Media Backlash.
 Sheldon, O. J., Dunning, D., & Ames, D. R. (2014). Emotionally unskilled, unaware, and uninterested in learning more: Reactions to feedback about deficits in emotional intelligence. (Links to an external site.) Journal Of Applied Psychology, 99(1), 125-137
 Ames, D., Mason, M. & Carney, D. (2008). A primer on personal development (Case ID No. 080403). Columbia CaseWorks.
 Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the quest for a fantastic future (New York: Ecco, 2017)