Confidence, Optimism and Passion

flamy symbolThe Ambitious Owner Managers Group were discussing the topic “Is Confidence Slowly Returning?”. “What is confidence but a feeling that things will improve?” asked Stephen. Gerald responded by defining the difference between “confidence” (“being certain that a prediction is correct”) and “optimism” (“a tendency to anticipate the best possible outcome”) and went on to say that being confident in a positive future was an important attribute of the successful owner manager.

Getting the “confidence” thing right seems very important to me.

At one end of the spectrum, there is nothing more dangerous than the leader who has no self doubt – blind belief, when combined with passion and optimism, can be a very seductive mix. But there is a danger that we see “confident optimism” as a virtue in its own right. I remember people’s confidence in technology stock just before the dot.com crash. And the bankers were confident that sub-prime was a great business to be in. And I have seen profitable companies with good business models flounder due to the blind belief of owner managers that every new business venture they undertake is bound to succeed.

On the other hand, we know that there comes a time to “put aside our doubts and commit to a chosen path” – we have all seen people and organisations incapacitated by self-doubt and inability to make a decision.

Ian Graham has a good perspective on this in his in his post “Passion the poison pill“, where he says “while passion is the glue for the vision and the driving force behind the dream it can also be the poison in the kool aid or the seed of irrational exuberance”. Daniel Isenberg, in his HBR blog The Danger of Entrepreneurial Passion, says “Passion is up there with innovation in what people think entrepreneurs need in order to succeed. I doubt it. My experience as entrepreneur, entrepreneur educator, and venture capitalist tells me that the more scarce and valuable commodity is cold-shower-self-honesty. Sure, it takes huge commitment, energy, and stamina to get a new venture off the ground. And of course you have to believe, sometimes with little data, that you can succeed against the odds. But passion is an emotion that blinds you.”

It seems to me that being able to achieve and communicate the appropriate level of confidence, optimism and passion is an important competence for us all, and is critical for owner managers and other leaders. One thing that makes getting the balance right particularly difficult is that the definition of what is “appropriate” will be different at different stages of your organisation’s development (this requirement is described well in “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith). “Getting it right”  requires self awareness and the ability to receive honest feedback from those around you. Access to good feedback can be particularly difficult for owner managers, who often do not have to report to Boards and shareholders. Developing a relationship with a good Executive Coach or joining a group such as the Ambitious Owner Managers Group, can provide a useful check on whether we are being under or over confident.

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