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Optimism is True Moral Courage: How do you make it catchy?

I am working with a client whose optimism both terrifies and inspires me. They are surrounded on all sides by difficult circumstances, challenging prospects and dubious possibilities. Yet at each coaching session they show up with excitement, conviction and enthusiasm. How do they do this? Why don’t they fall over in a heap like the rest of us? What is the ‘x’ factor that allows them to keep choosing optimism over ‘giving up’ or ‘getting frustrated’ or ‘blaming everyone else’?

It was Sir Ernest Shackleton that said ‘Optimism is true moral courage’. And he should know. In 1915, having lost his ship ‘Endurance’, he led four men on a 720 mile journey in a 20-foot lifeboat from Elephant Island in the Antarctic to South Georgia. He then organised the successful return to Elephant Island to rescue the remaining 22 crewmen. I guess there were some who doubted that it was possible. I guess there were times when he wanted to give it all up. I guess that, as the leader, there were many who thought he was to blame.

It takes courage to be an optimist because it takes courage to fail. It takes courage to be wrong. It takes courage to be unlucky. It takes courage to have a go. Much easier to drift into the background and shelter in cynicism, negativity and despair.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

So, as leaders and coaches, when we encounter pessimism in others what is the best response? Is it to empathise with those whose glass is half empty? Is it too collude with a mind-set that says we are all going to hell in a handcart? Or is to challenge? To push back? To look at the other side of the coin?

I suppose the clue to the answer lies in the opening sentence of this blog. Optimism can either inspire or terrify others depending upon the level of trust in the relationship. Shackleton’s men followed him, and his optimism, because they trusted him; a trust built over many years on similar daring expeditions. If a complete stranger had enthusiastically offered to take them on the same 720 mile journey I guess they would have been quickly dismissed as well-intentioned but crazy. Optimism is true moral courage but it is also a dangerous commodity that must be handled with care. For your optimism may provoke my pessimism. Your courage may provoke my timidity. How do we avoid this risk?

In NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) there is a simple technique known as ‘pace then lead’. Pacing means adopting another person’s model of the world without judgement and on their terms. So when an optimist meets a pessimist the best thing the optimist can do is to build trust by ‘walking in the other person’s shoes’; at least for a while. Once you have paced another person, established rapport and shown that you understand where they are coming from, then you have an opportunity to lead. You intuitively know that moment because when you ‘zig’ they start to ‘zig’ and when you ‘zag’ they start to ‘zag’. If you ‘zig’ and they still ‘zag’, then you know there is more pacing to be done.

If optimists ‘pace then lead’ then their optimism is inspirational. If they forget to do the pacing then their optimism can be terrifying. It becomes terrifying because it is ‘other-worldly’. It becomes inspiring when they first connect with our reality and recognise our negativity for what it is; an honest fear. In practice, this means that if leaders want to make their optimism catchy then empathy must precede challenge. The glass half-empty must be recognised before the glass half-full is put forward. In this way, leaders create cultures of optimism in their teams and organisations. In this way, the crew comes with you instead of getting left behind.

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