We live in a cynical world. A cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors. — Jerry Maguire
The world of the corporate enterprise can be a cynical place. Week after week, I preach leadership. I do it for all of you, but I also do it for myself. By writing, I remind myself of the truth. Why do you and I need these constant reminders? Our world is cynical, and frankly, sometimes so are we. Cynicism is distrust and bitter complacency. Cynicism sneers at hope and laughs at optimism.
Why are we so cynical?
It’s easier. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way of explaining reality that is personally safe, because we mask our true feelings. It’s a way of eliminating hope, so we cannot be disappointed. Sure, it’s safe, but it’s also cold and lonely. Most importantly, it’s the single biggest antipattern for leadership.
The “gateway drug” to cynicism is sarcasm. We use humor to make light of heavy situations. This can be okay, but left unchecked, it can evolve into full blown cynicism. Sarcasm isn’t always bad, but if it dominates, it can create a calloused environment void of authentic expression of feeling.
That’s not the same for skepticism. I see pure skepticism as a good and healthy trait that most good leaders possess. It’s a critical thinking skill and shouldn’t be lumped in with cynicism and sarcasm.
How do you know when you’ve gone too far to the dark side? Ask yourself these questions: Am I pessimistic? Am I distrusting? Do I walk around with a scowl on my face? Am I preoccupied with negative thoughts? Do I think the future will be worse than the past? If you find yourself saying “yes” to these questions, then it’s time for a self-correction.
We all have “Eeyore days,” but we cannot live there. For some of us, 2020 has been a whole year of disappointment. You can’t just stop being cynical. You have to replace it with something. As I discussed in detail in my article on self-awareness, the ability to manipulate your own emotions and attitudes is an attribute of high Emotional Intelligence or EQ. So, with what do you replace cynicism? Hope, gratitude, appreciation, respect, patience, optimism, vulnerability, passion, and trust.
A Tale of Two Cities
I find that every company, every department, and every team is A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Reality and optimism
It’s important to be grounded in reality. Recognize the coexistence of good and bad. They are both always present. Acknowledge the bad, and address the bad, but let your mind dwell on the good. See the progress, see the best reasonably possible version of the future, and focus your attention there. That’s what leadership is. It’s a choice to be positive, hopeful, aspirational, and inspirational.
It’s a new year. Let 2021 be the year where your leadership and my leadership rise above cynicism. The world will continue to make that task difficult, but we can rise above. Happy New Year to all of my readers!
This article was adapted from a Zach on Leadership post from 1/6/2017