The optimist, the pessimist, and the engineer

The optimist, the pessimist, and the engineer

If an optimist sees a glass half full… (see riddle below 😉)

Wordcount: 543       Time to read: ~3 minutes

Being a leader means being ready to mitigate problems with little to no prior knowledge or experience, and to execute those actions with confidence and strength.

One of the most urgent and high-risk issues facing leaders today is the pressure to make decisions when the information needed to do so is unsettled and changing. During one of the most unpredictable and contentious environments of the last 50 years, the right thing to do can be more difficult to get hold of than ever.

While many businesses have survived, even thrived, how could anyone have been prepared for a natural disaster the size and scope of the Covid-19 pandemic?

No one, literally no living person has ever been asked to make decisions in as unpredictable an environment as today’s. There are simply no relevant models to look to for guidance.

With the daily pressure to perform as the resident expert, weaker leaders can fall prey to certain harmful behaviors. When they are under extreme pressure to act or fail, due diligence can be easily detoured, and bad decisions made. A bad decision in this environment can be catastrophic if not fatal.

As an experienced leader, you recognize that there is no such thing as perfection, and mistakes will be made by you and your staff. So long as you get most of the decisions right most of the time, you are probably ahead of the game. When the stakes get higher, it is time to eliminate emotion from your thoughts and rely on facts, logic and probability, things that often escape us when we are acting under unreasonable pressure.

Unlike the common planning adage, failure to act does not constitute acting to fail as long as the decision to not act is deliberate.

As Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem
If: A father’s Advice to His Son” states.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;”

We need to be careful and think about what we are doing, particularly when we find ourselves in adversarial, contentious, divisive, confrontational, and thorny situations where our experience and knowledge are not as deep as we want them to be. That is no reason to act irrationally, emotionally, or with hubris.

Sometimes having someone to talk to, to validate perceptions, ideas, and the efficacy of possible solutions to problems can be a magic mirror for clarity. I’ve been facilitating critical thinking conversations with executives over the past year doing this very thing. Everyone, including me, has found these to be enlightening, enjoyable, and useful for decision-making insight. Some call it masterminding, I call it change mentoring.

If you’re interested in a no-fee 43-minute critical thinking discussion, email me at Include critical thinking in your subject line for a faster response.

Another helpful resource can be found in one of my Sacramento Business Journal columns titled Executives should know when to seek outside help[1] from May 2006 which gives advice on where to seek input when experience and knowledge are limited.

Riddle: If an optimist sees a glass half full and the pessimist sees it as half-empty, how does the engineer see it?

Answer: An engineer finds the glass twice as big as it needs to be.

Moral: In business, most choices are clouded in grey while decisions are often reinforced by perspective. Don’t let your perspective obscure others and become your jail. Always be open to different ways of thinking.

[1] Mandelberg, Larry. “Executives should know when to seek outside help,” News – Got Growth, Sacramento Business Journal, 18 May 2006,


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