The Importance of Executives with a Positive Outlook
03.21.18   by Erin Burns

Recently, I shared seven personality traits that differentiate executive leaders from leaders at other levels in the organization. These seven traits are: objectivity, having a positive outlook, being engaged, innovative, a team builder, a quick learner, and trusting. These personality characteristics are uniquely important in executive leaders and can also be used to help identify and develop high-potential future executive leaders. The focus of this post is to expand a little on the second of these traits, having a positive outlook. Learn more about the first trait, The Importance of Having a Positive Outlook

Why is it important to have a positive outlook?

When you meet a successful executive, one of your first impressions is likely that they are open, "in command" of their situation, and self-confident. When they speak about issues, you understand, believe in, and are inspired by their vision and want to be a part of making their vision a reality. Your impression comes from subtle cues in how they react to you, to others, or to tough problems.  “Underneath the hood,” truly effective senior leaders approach a challenge with an optimistic perspective, which manifests itself as a belief that they can handle the challenge and make a difference with what they do. Perhaps more important, it is infectious. It uplifts and energizes others, leading them also to be more optimistic about what they can accomplish. It is a big part of their ability to succeed in what they take on.

A positive outlook is hugely important because executive leadership is not easy. Top-level leaders spend a lot of time resolving conflicts, advising on thorny challenges, and anticipating problems and challenges that may lie ahead. Their wisdom is not only essential in order to understand emerging threats and opportunities, it also paints a credible and positive picture of what is possible. This takes a lot of energy, deep commitment, and cognitive skills, because the executive environment is filled with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. It also takes good stress tolerance, because some problems and issues at this level seem almost too complex or nuanced to solve.    

Leaders who approach conflict, challenges, and ambiguity with a belief that they ultimately will succeed are able to bring the full extent of their experience and thinking skills to bear on a problem. A positive outlook facilitates both their ability to realistically evaluate complex situations and have the ability to “stay cool” when confronted with difficult issues or decisions. As such, they are able to apply their full cognitive resources to problem solving. In other words, their belief in ultimate success actually facilitates resolving a problem or conflict. 

Can a leader be too positive?

Leaders who are too self-confident can over-estimate the likelihood of success, their personal capabilities, and an organization’s capabilities. They are more likely to skim over due diligence and make quick decisions, short-changing some of the risk analysis and risk mitigation that complex issues require. 

They are also more likely to underestimate the resources required to achieve complex goals. The larger the scope and scale of their responsibilities, the greater the risk too strong a positive outlook presents, as decisions become more complex and contingencies harder to see. 

What happens if a leader is negative?

Leaders with a negative outlook are often already stretched in meeting the demands they face and have fewer stress reserves. In addition to the many negative health effects of stress, stress makes it more difficult for leaders to bring their full cognitive abilities to problem solving. They are more likely to see issues as bigger than they actually are, and are prevented from being able to apply their full cognitive capability to problem solving. This makes it harder for them to be successful in their existing role, to accept new responsibilities, or to respond to unexpected crises. 

Many leaders with a more negative outlook begin to see others as a threat and assume a “bunker” mentality of me/us vs. them, eroding the trust required to create collaborative working relationships and to develop others.

A negative outlook can also make leaders defensive or unstable in responding to negative information or problems, resulting in decisions being made with incomplete information, or sometimes not made at all. In some leaders, a negative outlook also manifests as avoidance of challenging or new directions.  Any of these tendencies will make it harder for leaders -- especially top-level executives -- to make the high-profile, high-risk decisions that they alone are positioned to execute, and to some extent will place their organizations at risk.

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