Leadership – Optimistic Paranoia

Some years ago, I heard a radio interview with the chairman of a large technology company.  He was asked what key traits he looked for in his board. He summarised his answer as “optimistic paranoia.”

This phrase has stuck with me as a convenient shorthand for the balance we need to achieve in creating or running a business.

 Optimistic – because we need to believe in what we are doing and that there will be a positive outcome. The saying “whether you believe you will, or whether you believe you won’t – you’re probably right,” carries a lot of truth. Recent work in the field of positive psychology has confirmed the importance to our relationships, success in life and general wellbeing of having an ability to think – and be – positive. As well as affecting our own success, this can also rub off on others with the resulting wider benefits. This is particularly important when people are looking to you for guidance or inspiration – if you don’t visibly believe in the outcome, why should others?

Paranoia – is a more difficult word. It has a medical meaning related to delusions of persecution or conspiracy. This was not what the chairman was suggesting, but rather the need to constantly stay aware of what was going on in the wider environment that might have an impact. The key point was to address the potential risk of optimism: complacency.  If we believe that everything will always turn out for the best, we may well miss the actions that we need to take to ensure that the positive outcome becomes reality.

“What could go wrong?” is an important question, and being aware of the potential downsides does not make us negative – it makes us realistic. It requires that we stay alert and are constantly scanning for new challenges that might have an impact on our activity.  Being explicit about our assumptions, and ensuring we have thought them through to understand their reality is also important.

The key is getting the right balance. It requires always believing in oneself and the potential for success in any venture – but also staying grounded and aware of what could come up that will need to be addressed.

As an exercise, ask yourself: where do I sit on these dimensions?

  • Am I optimistic and positive about what I am doing and do the people I interact with see this in me?
  • Am I sufficiently aware and realistic about the challenges, understanding the assumptions I am making and staying aware of the wider environment?

Calum Byers is an executive coach and strategy advisor who works with people and companies undergoing change. He is a Senior Associate with Customer Attuned.