The Leadership Lens
6/3/13 at 03:49 PM 3 Comments

Tough-Minded Optimism

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Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It is the classic question to measure whether a person is an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, the actual answer is that the glass is both half-empty and half- full. At times, leaders need both of these perspectives. Good leaders are not unrealistic optimists or cynical pessimists. Further, they do not view things in a distorted manner such as claiming the glass is empty or completely full. Instead, they clearly perceive both the possibilities and the challenges.

John Gardner in his classic book On Leadership advocated the need for what he described as “tough- minded optimism.”[1] By this term he meant that a leader has to have balance between realism and idealism, between visionary hope, and dreamy naivety. Leaders must inspire. As Gadrner observed of leaders, “their number one job is to keep hope alive.”[2] When an organization loses hope, its demise is certain. Instead, leaders must chart a course for achieving a better tomorrow, for fulfilling mission, for transformational outcomes. These objectives involve real problems and obstacles that cannot be ignored. Followers will cease to have confidence in leaders who deceptively hide true reality from them. Nor will they follow a Pollyanna attitude that does not acknowledge the bad along with the good. Tough-minded optimism embraces hope while keeping a watchful eye on the difficulties that may keep that hope from being achieved. Expanding on Garner’s brief discussion of this concept, I offer the following four characteristics as being necessary for leaders to practice tough-minded optimism.

Tough minded optimism utilizes a visionary leadership style.

Research by Daniel Goleman and others has substantiated that visionary leadership is the most effective style in turning around a declining situation. A visionary leader can see potential when others cannot. Visionary leaders can begin to turn around morale just by helping constituents have a positive outlook. One way for leaders to do so is to point out the assets of the organization they lead.

In over thirty years as a pastor, I often found myself called to churches experiencing low morale as a result of falling attendance. Rather than chastise them for the low attendance, one of the first things I did was point out that the church was blessed by those that had stayed. I noted that God was pleased with their commitment, and that we should focus on our heart for worship and our service more than our number of attendees. We also took time to consider the other resources the church had and the opportunities that were present. I noted that God only expected us to be faithful with what we had, nothing more and nothing less. I was fortunate to have a core group that bought into the optimism. This perspective became contagious to others in the congregations. The visionary hope produced a biblical synergism and soon the churches were growing again. Yet this outlook was not dreamy idealism. It did not ignore the problems. They were real and challenging, but together we took them on one by one and saw God work.

Tough-minded optimism avoids hyper-visionary leadership.

Tough-minded optimism is visionary but not hyper-visionary. Visionary leadership is motivating. It helps people see a cause that is greater than their individual selves. Yet sometimes visionary leaders morph into something darker. The vision begins to become more grandiose. It becomes tied to the leader’s sense of personal achievement and even self-worth. When this occurs, the needs of the followers become secondary. In its most sinister manifestations, the constituents are seen as expendable.

Hyper-visionary leaders often overreach. They do not have the discernment to see their limitations or the limitations of their followers. Hitler infused Germany with new optimism. However, he epitomized the dark side of a hyper-visionary leader. He had little regard for the needs of the German populace. The individual only existed to serve the state ( i.e., Hitler). His early success was eclipsed by his overreach and maniacal motives led to catastrophic results. Ironically, at the end he was caustic in his criticism of the German people for having failed him. Certainly no church organization would ever experience evil to that extent. However, we all know examples of church leaders whose hyper-visionary leadership has led congregations to attempt to extend beyond reasonable limits. In such cases, the hyper-visionary church leader may interpret failure as a lack of faith or commitment on the part of the followers. In reality, it is likely the result of the leader’s blind, narcissistic ambition.

Tough-minded optimism discerns the problems but undauntedly works for a solution.

While limited resources and obstinate obstacles can be daunting, most often the biggest challenge that leaders face is the constituents they lead. Tough-minded optimism sees the potential in people but is not discouraged with their failures. Jesus was well aware of sinful human nature. John noted, “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them for He knew all men.” (John 2:24 NASB) Jesus showed enough confidence in the potential of the disciples to send them out to minister. Yet He did not hesitate to rebuke them when appropriate. Leaders are in the people business. Humans are made in the image of God and have glorious potential, but are sinners that can catastrophically fail. Good leaders deal with both of these realities. The job of the leader is to bring out the former and to minimize the latter. The twelve were not impressive in what they were when they were called, but they ultimately were transformed into followers that changed the world. Leaders who have tough-minded optimism do not easily give up on their followers. They manage to see the potential of what they can be in spite of their present deficiencies.

Tough-minded optimism celebrates successes but does not rest on them.

Good leaders know the importance of celebrating victories. Recognizing and rewarding progress encourages teams. Inspiring leaders know how to set their followers up for little successes that build into greater ones. The leader must walk the fine line between preventing either discouragement or complacency. Three-fourths of a glass versus a half of glass is progress to celebrate, but it is still not full. Jesus was the master in keeping this balance. He commended Peter for a remarkable insight as to who He was, but then sternly rebuked him for his sinful misperception of His mission. Yet this regrettable stumble did not negate the potential of Peter that Jesus foresaw and affirmed. Jesus skillfully helped Peter understand the triumphs of his faith and the failures of his sinful nature while never wavering from His commitment to bring him to his full potential.

A balanced perspective keeps hope alive.

Leadership is tough work, but the rewards are great. Whether dealing with people or circumstances, tough-minded optimistic leaders avoid the pitfalls of cynical pessimism or delusional thinking that misrepresents true reality. Leaders who have this perspective are not vacillating between despair and euphoria. Optimism prevails, because they are resolute. They are steady in the saddle. They do not run at the first sign of difficulty. They expected it and have even prepared for it.

Christian leaders who accept both the positive and negative aspects of their leadership situations should be especially resilient. They can know that the cross they must bear in leadership for being obedient to Christ is ultimately coupled with a triumphant victory in Christ. They push forward with a determined conviction that with God nothing is impossible. They are well aware that the entities they lead are not where they should be, but they are passionate to reach the optimum. Like Jesus, they see the potential in people. They may struggle, but they keep hope alive. They recognize that the glass may be both half-empty and half-full, but their vision is for the full glass of what God has called them to do.

[1] Gadrner, On Leadership, 195.

[2] Ibid.

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