3 Differences Between Optimism and Positive Thinking

Optimism and positive thinking are not the same thing. One is always an asset to your leadership, but the other can be a liability if you’re not careful. If you are a student of leadership, you already know that attitude and perspective are critical to your success, so I invite you to walk with me through three key differences between optimism and positive thinking that could have a big effect on your leadership this year.

3 Differences Between Optimism and Positive Thinking

1: Trait vs. Choice

I am using the word optimism in a very specific way in this post: optimism is a personality trait you inherit, while positive thinking is a choice you make.

We all have a natural wiring that affects our orientation towards ourselves and the world. Some personality types are oriented to view the world favorably, and others see the world, or their external conditions, as primarily unfavorable.

There is truth in both perspectives. But whether you consider yourself by nature to be an optimist, pessimist, or realist, you have a choice about how you think. Positive thinking is an attitude you choose no matter what your underlying personality may be.

2: How Things Will Work Out vs. How I will Respond

Optimism makes an assumption about the world. It assumes that everything will work out alright in the end. On the other hand, positive thinking makes no assumptions about how the external world will be. Instead, it considers how I/we will respond to external circumstances.

The leader who chooses positive thinking does not assume all the odds will be in his or her favor. Instead, the positive leader puts confidence in the self (or the team’s) ability to act and respond in effective ways.

3: Blind Spot vs. Sight

Leaders with the personality trait of optimism can be accused of being blind to negative reports or dismissive of obstacles. Their assessments of the future or of their capabilities may seem naive. People around the optimistic leader may grow concerned that the organization is heading for a cliff, and no one seems alarmed.

But the leader who chooses positive thinking is clear-eyed about obstacles and even serious problems. The positive leader acknowledges these challenges and works towards solutions. They do not ignore or minimize the problems, but they move forward with the purposeful belief that a solution can be found.

Why It Matters

Why does it matter that we discern the difference between optimism and positive thinking? Internally, it matters because our beliefs inform our values, our values inspire our actions, and our actions create our results.

Optimism, like all personality traits, can be either a strength or a weakness depending on the situation. A leader who is blind to the weaknesses of optimism as a trait will be limited in their development and effectiveness.

Externally, the difference matters because of the impact we have on those we lead. The optimistic leader can unknowingly create insecurity and fear in the organization if he or she does not seem to take obstacles seriously. And because our culture prizes optimism as the ideal and scorns pessimism as an undesirable trait, leaders who are gifted with non-optimistic personality types can feel minimized, dismissed, or like they have to hide their natural perspective.

Leaders should recognize that optimism, pessimism, or realism are neutral traits we bring to the table, and they may either help us or hinder us depending on the situation.

Instead of insisting on optimism, a better approach is to choose the attitude of positive thinking, which can serve all personality types in working toward effective solutions.

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