Intelligent Optimism

In criticizing the notion of leading from the positive lens, people often point out the dangers of optimistic self-deception.  Self-deception is a real danger but positive leadership is not self-deceptive.  Quite the opposite.  It is about intelligent optimism.  It is about seeing reality clearly, experiencing pain while maintaining hope.  It is about choosing to engage reality from a state of high functionality.

I know a woman who often teaches materials from positive organizational scholarship.  She was diagnosed with cancer.  She determined to be proactive in going through the process and to do it in the framework of gratitude.  She then told me one amazing story after another.

I received an email from one of the women on the staff of the business school.  She has a staff job, but she volunteers to help other staff members in the university by doing workshops and giving talks about the application of positive organizational scholarship.  She wrote about what she plans to do in an upcoming session:

“So, my plan is to talk about gratitude and the impact of keeping a gratitude journal, making a gratitude visit, sharing research such as the Nun Study, and my passion for being grateful.  But I also plan to talk about the fact that in my personal experience, it is not always possible to be grateful every moment.  Life happens.  In my life, my Mom suffers from Alzheimer’s and has had it for five years.  So far, it has been a slow progression, but it is still happening and it is not easy!  My husband has been unemployed for two years and has low self-esteem.  In addition, he has been told he needs open-heart surgery and he is in total denial.  None of these things are a piece of cake, but I am able to cope because of my faith and my belief that if we focus on all that we have to be grateful for in our lives, it will give us the strength to get through the rough times.  What do I have to be grateful for: I am able to share this research with everyone and hopefully plant a seed or help them in their daily lives, I have a good job and a great boss, I have three children that graduated from college even though I barely had a dime to help them, I have five grandchildren, I am given the opportunity to sing in church, my Mom is still alive, my husband makes me laugh all the time — the list is endless!!!”

The challenges of life are very real.  How we choose to engage them is very important.  I am surrounded by people who work at various levels of the hierarchy but choose how they live.  That makes them extraordinary.  They teach me that I have more options than fight or flight.  They teach me the value of intelligent optimism.  I am grateful for them.



  • What is intelligent optimism?
  • What is positive leadership?
  • Why does pain often turn a person into a positive leader?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

One comment on “Intelligent Optimism

  1. True optimism in my understanding is acknowledging the real feelings, the real situation, not denying and saying – I only want to see the “positive”. What we see as positive or negative is hugely impacted by out subconscious beliefs. What gratitude is doing – bringing our attention to the present moment, we become much more self-aware of what we think and feel – you just cannot be in the future or past when being grateful! Gratitude Journal really was a game changer. It is not always easy to be grateful, but much more important to be honest and truthful with yourself – to look directly into what I’m feeling, and allow it to be.

    I like one extract from the book which illustrates that very well.

    “By Itself, Conscious Positive Thinking Cannot Overcome Subconscious Negative Feelings.
    At one time or another, we’ve all consciously declared: I want to be happy. But until the body is instructed otherwise, it’s going to continue expressing those programs of guilt or sadness or anxiety. The conscious, intellectual mind may reason that it wants joy, but the body has been programmed to feel otherwise for years. We stand on a soapbox proclaiming change to be in our best interests, but on a visceral level we can’t seem to bring up the feeling of true happiness. That’s because mind and body aren’t working together. The conscious mind wants one thing, but the body wants another. If you’ve been devoted to feeling negatively for years, those feelings have created an automatic state of being. We could say that you are subconsciously unhappy, right?
    Your body has been conditioned to be negative; it knows how to be unhappy better than your conscious mind knows otherwise. You don’t even have to think about how to be negative. You just know that it’s how you are. How can your conscious mind control this attitude in the subconscious body-mind? Some maintain that “positive thinking” is the answer. I want to be clear that by itself, positive thinking never works. Many so-called positive thinkers have felt negative most of their lives, and now they’re trying to think positively. They are in a polarized state in which they are trying to think one way in order to override how they feel inside of them. They consciously think one way, but they are being the opposite. When the mind and body are in opposition, change will never happen.”

    – Dr. Jo Dispenza, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One

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