The Cynical Leader? Yeah. Right.

5 Ways to Boost Your Immunity to Cynicism

Jeffrey Bolognese
· 5 min read
Image from Science Based Medicine

There are many words used to describe the attributes of a successful leader. “Cynical” is generally not one of them. I haven’t done an extensive review, but a quick search on Amazon doesn’t reveal any books on leadership that suggest cultivating cynicism is a key to inspiring others.

The reason is simple: The cynic believes that people are motivated solely by self interest. In essence, you can’t trust anyone but yourself. That’s not the most inspiring platform on which to build an organization. It’s hard to imagine people flocking around a leader who, by nature, doesn’t trust them.

I Was Going to Talk About Cynicism, But Why Bother?

At it’s heart, cynicism can be viewed as a reaction to feeling powerless: “I can’t change the situation because the system is rigged, the problems are too big for me to influence, and no one will listen to me anyway.” Leaders can be particularly susceptible to those feelings of powerlessness as they frequently find themselves caught between the needs of those they lead and the demands and dictates from those above them.

If you pay attention to the news (you know. That fake stuff) or have a social media account anywhere, you know that cynicism flourishes in both the personal and professional world. It’s everywhere. In fact, if cynicism was classified as a disease by the World Health Organization, we’d be facing a pandemic right now!

Doctor, it Hurts When I Lead

For leaders, the threat of encroaching cynicism is multifaceted. As noted above, once a leader become infected with cynicism they can no longer effectively lead. A leader’s cynicism will ultimately damage the health of their team as well and can even be detrimental to their own physical health!

The good news is that cynicism is a treatable “disease.” Here are five steps you can take to protect yourself from the plague of cynicism:

1- Focus More on Successes Rather than Dwelling on “Failures”
The human mind is hard-wired to remember bad things more readily than the good. This was a fine defense mechanism when our ancient ancestors were trying to remember which plants were poisonous and which animals wanted to eat them, but it doesn’t serve us quite as well in the modern world. Some studies have shown that it may take five “good” experiences to counter every “bad” one. The end result of that biological fact is that we need to be intentional about focusing on our successes rather than dwelling on failures.

Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. — Stephen Colbert

That may also mean looking at those times when we’ve stumbled and seeing what positives may have come out of those situations. This can be hard work. We’re so invested in our own “failures” that we can’t always accurately see our successes. Consider talking to a close friend or family member who can have a more unbiased perspective. When we have the ability to see and appreciate our successes, we become less susceptible to pessimism and cynicism.

2- Reserve Time in Your Day for Curiosity and Creativity
Cynicism believes that nothing can change. Cultivating a curious and creative mind is an effective inoculation against cynicism. By staying curious you keep yourself open to learning, and by exercising your creativity, you create possibilities for seeing supposedly intractable situations in new ways.

Life must be lived and curiosity kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life. — Eleanor Roosevelt

There are many ways to foster curiosity and creativity: Read, write, draw, paint, take a continuing education class, pick up a new hobby. Whatever it is, make the time to feed your mind the healthy food it needs to continue to grow and stay adaptable.

3- Identify Your Areas of Influence When Dealing with “Uncontrollable” Situations
It’s a fact that there will always be situations in our lives as leaders that we can’t change. That doesn’t mean that we are completely without influence. While we may not be in control of external circumstances imposed upon us, we generally have control over how we allow ourselves to react. And, as leaders, we may also be able to influence how other react as well.

The worst thing that can happen in a democracy — as well as in an individual’s life — is to become cynical about the future and lose hope. — Hillary Clinton

For example, I may not like a new policy coming down from upper management, but I can manage how I react to it. I can also help interpret it for others on my team so that, together, we may be able to come up with ways to maximize the potential positives of a new directive and minimize possible negative effects. That creates pockets of “empowerment” in an overwhelming situation and helps ward off cynicism.

4- Surround Yourself with Non-Cynical People
Cynicism is a highly contagious disease. If you’re surrounded by cynical people your “immune system” can be worn down making you more susceptible to becoming cynical yourself.

Avoid cynical and negative people like the plague. They are killers of potential. — Rick Pitino

This doesn’t mean that you should (or even can!) completely avoid being around cynical people. That’s just not realistic. However, having optimistic, non-cynical people in your life that you can lean on when you start feeling powerless is another way to inoculate yourself against that dreaded disease.

5- Model an Non-Cynical Attitude for Those You Lead
If Cynicism is contagious, then an infected leader can be the Typhoid Mary of an organization. If a leader displays cynicism to their team it can normalize that behavior for everyone. When cynicism takes root, it erodes the trust that’s so critical for a team to function.

Cynicism is humor in ill health. — H. G. Wells

Leaders need to both model a non-cynical attitude and effectively address cynicism when manifested in their team. When done effectively, this produces a positive feedback loop where the team becomes stronger and more able to deflect cynicism which strengthens the “immune systems” of both the team and leadership. A win-win!

Be the Cure

While cynicism may be endemic in our culture, it can be resisted and even cured. We, as leaders, are in a particularly important position in that fight. With proper self-care we can inoculate ourselves against becoming cynical and, through our actions, help those we lead not only resist infection but to thrive in a cynical world.

Oh. And be sure to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. That’s important, too.

Feel free to hit the recommend button (♡ icon below) or share if you enjoyed this article! Thanks for reading! #SASEPrints


The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers

Jeffrey Bolognese

Written by

Father, husband, aerospace engineer, sci-fi geek, advocate for diversity in STEM, hiker, and dog lover.


The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers

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