Generally speaking, optimism is a positive force. The same cannot be said for foolish optimism. The potential problems brought on by naïve, misguided happy talk are every real.
Poorly informed leaders often share false optimism unwittingly because they don’t have reliable data. The blame can be theirs alone, or it can be credited to subordinates who unintentionally misinformed or intentionally disinformed. Systemic information failures and voids can also deprive leaders of dependable information. And in some cases, such as a previously unimaginable or a rapidly developing situation, there simply may be no reliable information.
Even when false optimism is unwittingly offered, dispelling unwarranted perceptions is crucial. Leaders must own the errors, holding themselves and others who are responsible accountable. Failure to do so leaves the door wide open for such behavior to be repeated. The next step is to get the facts and information you need. Then, and only then, is setting the record straight even remotely possible.
Leaders may choose to share overly optimistic information to quell a panic, calm an already panicked situation, or buy some much needed time. Even though well-intended, a leader’s situational awareness, credibility, and judgement can later be seriously questioned. Regardless of the purity of the motivation, unfounded happy talk, frequently produces a mess that must be cleaned up before moving on is possible. It’s important to remember that just because no one is talking about a misconception brought on by a leader’s or an organization’s foolish optimism, doesn’t mean everyone has forgotten about it.
In an effort to purposefully misdirect, foolish leaders often strive to create an alternate reality. In their efforts to provide cover for themselves or for others, or pursue some other personal agenda, they work to confuse, whitewash, and disinform. Leaders who do so are playing with fire and will likely be burned. Before sharing personally motivated and misleading happy talk they need to ask themselves two questions. How bad could I be burned, and can I survive a serious burn?
Foolish optimism misdirects, stalls needed action, alters perceptions of reality, and is generally neither helpful nor appreciated over time.