Possibilitarian Leadership


If you had to describe yourself, your leadership style, with one word, what word would you choose? (Try it, it’s harder than you might think!) I was recently asked this question, and my response was . . . possibilitarian. Seriously, I didn’t make it up. It comes from a Norman Vincent Peale quote “Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities — always see them, for they’re always there.”

You’d have to ask those I work with whether that description is accurate or merely an aspirational view of my efforts, but it is certainly how I hope to approach my personal, professional, and faith journeys through this life. Why possibilitarian?

I used to call myself an optimist — and still do to a large extent — but some interpret that as taking a Pollyanna view that life is all sunshine and roses. If you have been a leader for any period of time, you can attest that it is not all sunshine and roses. However, if you allow the bumps along the way to sour you on the potential for the future, how will you ever motivate people to move your organization from Point A to Point B?

Jim Collins does a good job of describing this type of leadership, “unwavering faith amid the brutal facts” — which he calls the Stockdale Paradox. But with all due respect to Mr. Collins (who truly does have much to teach us), it took him 22 pages to make a case for the leadership sweet spot that Dr. Peale captures in two sentences.

As a person of faith, scripture tells me “all things are possible.” It doesn’t say fast, or easy, or painless. It says possible. Hmmm . . . seems instructive as you run up against obstacles that squash any chance of a fast, easy or painless solution. Just because something it hard doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Sometimes when our work is the toughest is also when it is the most important.

I also happen to think there is an authenticity to a possibilitarian leader that fosters trust. If all your people get from you is “happy talk”, don’t you think they’re wondering what you’re not telling them? A possibilitarian isn’t a fearless leader. A possibilitarian is a leader who acknowledges and weighs the risks and then moves forward to get to the possibility on the other side.

What one word would you use to describe your leadership style? Strong . . . forthright . . . courageous . . . confident . . . strategic . . . Yep, that’s what I thought . . . Possibilitarian!

Pragmatic Optimism

F. Scott Fitz Quote 2

Photo Credit: http://www.pbs.org

Powerful quote for leaders today, especially given the ever-growing requirements, expectations, and complicating factors that impact one’s ability to reach a desired outcome. It is so easy, and there are plenty of voices pushing us, to slide into either/or thinking. Pick a side . . . stake out a position . . . then resist any attempts to view things differently. Yet to be most effective — to be of first rate intelligence — as a leader has to be able to contend with multiple, often seemingly conflicting, realities.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as the Stockdale Paradox — accepting the brutal facts of the current reality while maintaining an unwavering faith in the ability to prevail. In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin has a similar concept he calls Integrative Thinking — facing the tension of opposing ideas and, rather than choosing one over the other, creating a new solution that has elements of the two original ideas but is superior to both.

Me, I simply call it pragmatic optimism. As leaders, we have a responsibility to deal with the reality before us, and, I think we have an equal responsibility to remain optimistic about our future. I’ll let you in on a little secret (which is really no secret at all to those who work with me) . . . I have very little patience for “oh poor me.” Sooner or later, we are all faced with situations that really stink/aren’t fair/aren’t our fault. Sure, it’s okay to have a quick little pity party, but then it’s time to move on. It baffles me why a leader would hang out in “ain’t it awful land” and wallow in the pain and suffering. Find a way to make things better and focus on that — not to ignore the current reality, but as a deliberate choice to move beyond it.

Or maybe you aren’t dealing with an “unfair” situation. Maybe you have two trusted advisors who have opposing proposals about the best way to respond to an opportunity. Are you an “all or nothing” leader who locks in on one option, or can you acknowledge the realistic strengths and weakness of each position while also having the confidence that those collective insights can result in a totally new, previously unconsidered, framework for success?

Pragmatic optimism. The willingness to look reality in the eye, and remain certain here is a path to get from here to your intended destination. Easy? No. Worth the effort? Well . . . let’s just say it sounds like first rate intelligence to me!

The Leadership Barometer

Change in the weather barometer macro detail.Merriam-Webster defines a barometer as 1) an instrument that is used to measure air pressure and predict changes in the weather, or 2) something that is used to indicate or predict something.

Like it or not, if you are in a leadership position, you will have staff members “checking your readings” as a barometer of what they can expect within the organization. Seriously. It is amazing how many people will notice if there is a change in your typical pattern of behavior (more/less meetings with leadership team, upbeat/looking stressed, out and about/holed up in your office . . . you get the picture), and their anxiety may go up or down depending on what they see.

This realization is rather disconcerting at first. After all, the fact that you may be dealing with some high-stress issues doesn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling; and even the most upbeat among us occasionally have bad days — sometimes several in a row — that may have nothing to do with the organization. What’s a leader supposed to do?

Well first, for those of you thinking “Don’t my staff have enough to do without keeping an eye on me?” . . . probably . . . but can you honestly say that you have never gauged someone’s mood by paying attention to how they entered a room? It’s instinctual. So being aggravated that people are monitoring your behavior is a waste of time. The real challenge is what are you going to do about it? It doesn’t feel authentic to “fake it” and act like everything is goodness and sunshine all the time. People know better, and over time will begin to either not trust you or think you are totally disconnected from the reality they experience. On the other hand, openly conveying every frustration or anxiety, “ain’t it awful” style, doesn’t seem like a good plan either.

So what is the best option? I recommend transparency with a positive long view. My staff knows I am going to share the good the bad and the ugly — in context with my absolute confidence in this organization. “Yes, the bureaucratic wrangling we are experiencing right now is ridiculous, and it’s not likely to get better for a while, AND, we will do what we need to do to move past this and carry out our mission.” Jim Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great, describing the ability to have unwavering faith while facing the brutal facts. “These are difficult times, no doubt about it. We have made it through a lot of challenges before, and I am confident we will again,” — honest, without being fatalistic.

That is a barometer people can trust. It indicates there are challenges, and predicts the organization will prevail. It gives your staff confidence to stick with you through the storms to reach the sun on the other side.

What is your barometer forecasting?