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Is too much positive thinking dangerous?

Oct 19, 2008 Management, Sunday Nation

Positive thinking has been the mantra of the modern world for quite a while now. Spiritualists, life coaches and business leaders all agree: there is nowt to be gained from negativity. We must all think positive, be positive and do positive – and all positive things will happen to us.

No-one likes a doomsayer or a wet blanket. We all want to be surrounded by smiling, positive people who reinforce our own positive attitude, and then a snowball of positivity becomes a colossal globe that sweeps all before it…and we all rise to heaven while the angels sing.

I came across an article by New York Times columnist Barbara Ehrenreich recently that got me thinking about all this positivity. Ehrenreich wrote: “GREED — and its crafty sibling, speculation — are the designated culprits for the financial crisis. But another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking.”

She fingered Oprah Winfrey, megachurch pastors and self-help best sellers for planting the idea that you will get what you want if you visualise it positively enough.

The lady is onto something here. Positive thinking infected much of the corporate world throughout the 1990s and in this decade. Negativity was for sweepers; positivity for leaders. Certainly you could not become a CEO without displaying a broad smile and a “can-do” attitude at all times. Get that chest out, make your voice boom, practice the brisk walk – and all things are possible.

The whole world likes a forward-looking, positive-minded, buzzing leader more than it likes a dour, prudent, dull one. And leaders do indeed infect others with their moods: research by Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who gave us the idea of emotional intelligence shows that the actions and behaviour of leaders create the emotional climate of the organisation, which in turn is a great driver of business performance.

But have we taken it too far, as Ms Ehrenreich suggests? Certainly, the leaders in charge of the most spectacular crash-and-burn companies of recent weeks – Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, HBOS, various Icelandic banks – were all of the triple-A positive variety.

These titans believed that the world and the profit chart could only go up, that all risks were manageable, that toxic securities would become very attractive merely by thinking them so. They convinced their organisations, their customers and everyone else that we were merely on the gentle slopes of a exhilarating ride that would take us all onward and upward. All we had to do was believe.

As it turned out, we were perched on the edge of the abyss. And now we have fallen off.

There are way too many leaders in Kenya who display the same hubris, the same mindless optimism that we can only go up. I began to suspect this after 2004 when our stockmarket was getting into serious bull territory. Too many people were talking of there being only an upside in Kenya: we were poised to become THE African success story, the first tiger to stalk the Savannah.

The rose-coloured glasses did not seem to fall off even after the violence of January 2008; even then, we wished to think that what had happened was an aberration, a moment of madness. All we had to do was stop thinking about it and our economy would resume its growth trajectory.

And now, when the world economy is splintering and collapsing around us, there is plenty of talk of Kenya being largely immune to the contagion, of the effects on us being small and indirect, of healthy forecasts for 2009.

What makes anyone of sound mind imagine we can move forward without facing down the very serious issues that stalk this nation? We can’t do it until we tackle the rot of corruption that is in the fibre of the country. We can’t do it until we make more equitable opportunity available to more people. We can’t do it until we stop equating our human identity to the village from which we sprang. And we certainly can’t do it until we write a constitution that protects us from the politicians.

Do you feel that happening around you? In fact, what you might see is a stockmarket that has been oversold to an ignorant public; you might calculate that our budget has a whopper deficit; you might hear the draining sound of remittances, donor aid and investments drying up; and you might see the people who buy our flowers and visit our national parks turning into ghosts.

Nothing great ever happened in life, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, without enthusiasm. He was right. But right now, we do not need our enthusiasm to be mindless. The state of the world around us demands a big dose of realism. What we need are leaders who can see the scale of our problems, who can face them rather than run away from them, and who can tell us that nothing was ever gained easily in life.

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