The Power of Realistic Optimism

I’m aggressive. Ask anyone who works with me and they’ll line up to tell you that I don’t settle for small goals. What I push our team to achieve many people believe are pie-in-the-sky fantasies.

I’m optimistic. Ask my teammates how often I look at a situation and see the glass half empty and nearly all of them will tell you that it’s seldom, if ever. I have confidence in my own and other’s abilities and believe that hard work and passion pay incredible dividends that can not be underestimated.

This past week, I had the opportunity to be realistic. I’m not sure how many people that know me would volunteer that as one of my character traits. It can be in conflict with the combination Aggressive Optimism. It can also be complimentary.

It surprised more than a few people when I stepped back to reset expectations and admitted that a goal I had set was impossible to reach. We had learned too much since initially setting the goal to be able to honestly think we had a chance at success. Keeping the original goal would have been nothing short of a death march – a difficult and stressful time that ended in failure. Stepping back, resetting expectations, and letting the team know that they were doing everything in their power to accomplish the goal but that I had failed to foresee the challenges was a magical moment. The relief the team experienced gave us new energy to look at our challenge from a new direction, reset our goal, and plow forward.

A recent blog entry from OpenView Labs stated that the ideal CEO has three common characteristics. The first is Realistic Optimism, of which they write:

Leaders with this trait possess confidence without self-delusion or irrationality. They pursue audacious goals others would typically view as impossible pipe dreams, while at the same time remaining aware of the magnitude of the challenges confronting them and the difficulties that lie ahead.

Realistic Optimism is an important trait for a leader. It is critical that your team knows that you have their back. Setting audacious goals and having the ability to inspire a team to accomplish monumental successes is something that sets leaders apart. Having the ability to step back and deal with reality during your monumental climb is even more rare.

The motivation and loyalty that is gained by grounding your vision and objectives with a sense of reality is fuel for the rest of your journey. Realistic optimism does not mean backing down from a challenge or settling for what others would say is practical. Rather, it is a trait which balances a leaders’ strong passion for driving teams to accomplish exceptional, and often unheard of, results.

Who are some of the most inspirational leaders that you’ve encountered? Have they demonstrated this balance of audacious goal setting and realism? Do you have stories of how leaders have failed to remain realistic and have lost credibility because of it?


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