Are you an optimist OR a realist? Big mistake! Here’s why…

In the ground-breaking book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins explains why – specifically through his research with Admiral James Stockdale. You see, Stockdale spent eight years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, enduring relentless psychological abuse, neglect, and torture. But he survived and he went on to thrive – becoming the first three-star officer in the history of the Navy.

When Collins interviewed Stockdale, he asked him what his secret to success was. How was he able to have resilience when so many of his fellow soldiers didn’t make it out alive? Stockdale started by stating: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end, and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade.”

Hearing this, Collins assumed the secret to leadership success was optimism. You just needed to be an eternal optimist. But Stockdale quickly corrected him. He went on to explain,

There were some people who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Like Stockdale, successful leaders understand that optimism and realism only work well when they are working together. Having one without the other is a recipe for disaster but holding these values in healthy tension is the secret to leadership resilience and results.

Let me be clear – we all need optimism! It keeps morale high, builds resiliency in tough times, and allows you to see opportunities that others miss.

But here’s what happens when you overfocus on optimism to the neglect of realism: You become blind to the facts of reality that are impacting you; your team members start to lose trust in your competence; and your naïve approach leads to bad decisions.

That’s why as a leader, you must embrace realism. You need a clear-eyed view of the challenges you face, leading to sound – sometimes hard – decisions. And you need to be prepared for the next obstacle or challenge that is around the corner.

But here’s what happens when you overfocus on realism to the neglect of optimism. You start to create a “doom and gloom culture”. You miss out on opportunities because of the need for safety and being prepared. And you can get lost in the details and become overwhelmed.

How effective are you at being both an optimist AND a realist? Think about these past few weeks. I bet you’ve been hanging out in one of these four quadrants:

Optimism AND Realism 4 quadrants

Regardless of what quadrant you’re currently in, your goal is to spend more time in quadrant four. To be vigilant AND visionary.

Remember, finding healthy tension between optimism and realism doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by choice. And when you choose to be BOTH an optimist AND a realist the effectiveness and impact of your leadership will be elevated to a whole new level.


Team Activity

Engage your team in this conversation so that you are aligned and committed to getting all the positive results of both optimism and realism.

  1. Start by having them read this article.
  2. Next, work through these 3 worksheets at your next meeting or event. This can be done in person or virtually.
  3. Begin to tap into the power of healthy tension and start to see your team be both vigilant AND visionary.


Good luck and have fun!

Tim Arnold

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