Few suggestions seem more logical during a crisis than the idea that leaders ought to exude a sense of confidence and optimism. As Napoleon famously noted, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” The last thing people want when they face extreme adversity and need calming down is to see their leaders worry, stress, or melt down. Yet it seems reasonable to question whether displays of optimism are actually beneficial, or whether other, more critical attributes that coexist with optimism are more useful.
If optimism was the product of a leader’s competence, experience, or superior ability to deal with adversity, then it would signal to followers, teams, and subordinates that they are in safe hands, which would rightly calm their anxieties.
But is optimism still advantageous when it isn’t matched by corresponding levels of leadership talent? When faced with a crisis, is it still preferable for leaders to exude optimism and confidence when they aren’t in control of the situation? Perhaps more importantly, if leaders’ optimism and confidence matter more during a crisis than their actual talent and competence, shouldn’t we encourage leaders to fake positivity?
Conveying a false sense of positivity may have only short-term benefits for the leader—including masking their incompetence—while having negative long-term effects for their followers and subordinates, such as keeping them detached from reality and perpetuating an unwarranted level of hope.
During this global crisis, there is no shortage of examples that highlight the different styles of leaders. They’re particularly apparent precisely because leaders are faced with the same problem.
President Trump approaches his press conferences with a clear focus on promoting a positive outlook, as in “I think Easter Sunday we’ll have packed churches all over the country.” German chancellor Angela Merkel has focused on providing a brutal reality check and gloomy assessment of the situation, saying, “Experts say that 60%-70% of the population will be infected.” Along the same lines, there is a clear difference between New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s resilient pessimism in a statement such as “This is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,” and Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s laid-back optimism in “We have 20 counties that have zero cases at all and about 25 counties that really only have a few cases.” It’s tempting to use these prominent cases to determine whether optimism or pessimism may represent a better crisis management strategy for leaders. A better way to answer this question is to examine the large body of scientific research in this area.
When optimism is grounded in facts, such as healthy financial performance, it unquestionably pays off. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any self-fulfilling effects of optimism on subsequent performance outcomes, or that leaders can just artificially create optimism and expect results. If optimism is advantageous, it would have to be beneficial even when it’s irrational.
Imagine two leaders in the same situation, but one of them displays much more optimism than the other. Which leader’s group or team will be better off? While this is obviously hard to test, as no two leaders are in exactly the same situation, there are scientific studies that examine the link between optimism and leadership performance while controlling for conflating factors, such as past performance, external circumstances, and a leader’s competence.
This is our best source of data to quantify the actual ROI of optimism. For instance, military leaders tend to be rated more highly on leadership potential when they gravitate toward optimism, but their optimism levels have no impact on their actual leadership performance. For business and political leaders, the combination of a certain degree of internal underconfidence and pessimism, which helps them see deficiencies and foresee problems and threats, and a degree of external overconfidence and optimism that nurtures hope in others seems to work best. This feels intuitively better than being internally overconfident while projecting external insecurities.
Positivity also tends to improve most aspects of job performance, and leadership is no exception. But you can’t simply turn a negative or realistic leader into a natural optimist, or expect them to persuade others that they are optimistic when they aren’t. The data show a positive, albeit small, ROI to having a positive personality, rather than using optimism as an effective leadership strategy in times of crisis.
Even if optimism is an effective leadership tool, it is important to understand why. One of the obvious reasons is that people are generally prewired for optimism, to the point of preferring a distorted account of reality that enables them to think everything will be all right and it’s not their fault over a painful reality check. As Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, noted: “When it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or 50 years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.”
We are perfectly capable of being rational and data-driven, yet since nobody has data on the future we project our own positive biases when we predict future outcomes. Professor Sharot illustrates how: “We underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented. This phenomenon is known as the optimism bias, and it is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.”
Although there are cultural and individual differences in optimism, which make some people more realistic (and pessimistic) than others, humans in general are more likely to gravitate toward optimism than pessimism or realism. As Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate who cataloged the pervasive list of biases that contaminate our thinking, noted: “We’re generally overconfident in our opinions and our impressions and judgments.”
Understandably, optimism is most needed when times are tough and the future looks bleak. When we are aware of that fact, it is much harder to distort reality in our favor, for it requires a higher degree of denial than we are usually capable of experiencing. This is where leaders come in, with their confident optimism, giving us reasons to be hopeful when we seemed to have none.
The obvious question, then, is whether we can conclude that optimism is truly beneficial, or just a morale booster. In many areas of life, there is often a gap between what people want and what they actually need. Even if people crave optimism in tough times, our objective well-being is more important than our subjective well-being, and that depends more on competence than confidence.