Are you a pessimist or optimist? You might state that you are a realist. Most psychologists would counter that true realism is near impossible. In a complex world with lots of information to focus on, the action of attending to one data set means ignoring another data set. If you are an optimist you may look for data that adds to your positive outlook. If you are a pessimist you may look for data that supports a more negative outlook. Social psychology labels this as “confirmation bias”. Leadership must work hard at developing a less biased and more realistic perspective before making decisions.
In a classic case of “group think”, a very optimistic President Kennedy and his staff watched in horror at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA supported freedom fighters attempting overthrow Castro and retake Cuba. In hindsight, the failure was inevitable but the previously successful and highly confident Kennedy administration failed to look carefully at all the weaknesses of the plan. As the Bay of Pigs troops found out, a positive and cheery attitude does little to stop a bullet. When making decisions, leaders must face sober realities and address them appropriately before acting. As retired General Gordon Sullivan states in his book, “Hope is not a method”.
Does a positive attitude have value over a negative or even neutral one? Definitely. Once a plan is in the implementation stage where resources are committed and people are engaged, a positive attitude and high morale may be the only variables left to swing the outcome of impending events. Hope is not a method for preparation but during implementation, confidence and determination is surely preferable to fear and hesitation. Leaders model and set the attitude once the action starts.
Daniel Goleman states in his book titled Primal Leadership, “When people feel good they work at their best. Feeling good lubricates mental efficiency, making people better at understanding information and using decision rules in complex judgements, as well as more flexible ways of thinking”. Goleman found support for his claims in the results of several research studies:
-In a study of fortune 500 companies, cooperation and team work was a good predictor of increased profit share.
-Another study found that for every one percent increase in service climate there is a 2% increase in revenue.
-Poor morale in service organizations predicted higher turnover rates , resulting declining customer satisfaction and lower revenues.
-In a study of nineteen insurance companies, the organizational climate alone predicted profitability 75% of the time.
-Cardiac units in which nurses exhibited a predominately depressed mood had four times the death rate as patients in comparable units.
-In a study of 32 stores, positive employees had the best sales results.
Research supports the impact of leadership on results. In a study of various organizations and their employees, the leader was estimated to contribute to 50 to 70 percent of organizational climate and morale.
In summary, research supports the impact of leadership in setting the organizational climate and morale. This emotional climate directly impacts organizational success. In business the impact means money. In the military it can impact the casualty count. At a college it can impact enrollment and student retention. In the church it can mean effectiveness of mission. It is a tremendous responsibility, but that is what leadership is all about.
William H. Snow, Ph.D.