Leadership Fail: The Diminishing Return on Positivity

By: Alex Shattuck

As leaders we must have a positive mindset. Those who look to us need us to look at the glass half full. Keeping focused on the bright side of things works- until it doesn’t. 

There is a point of diminishing return on our positivity.

“To experience 100 percent positivity isn’t even what’s best for you. To experience 100 percent positivity defies and denies the humanness of life. It would mean that you’d buried your head in the sand.” -Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD

Much of this article was written on my travels back from the Florida Keys. Typically, that statement would be followed with a story packed with only positivity but we ran into some significant roadblocks on our way home. 

After a great two week vacation in the Keys our flight was delayed leaving. NBD- I thought, these things happen. Well, that caused us to miss our connecting flight in Miami. NBD- I thought, these things happen every day. They’ll slap us on the next flight out to Detroit and it’s all good. 


This was the heart of the spring break season and there was nothing available for a family of 6 heading to Detroit that night, or the next day, or the next, or the next… we tried it all- we offered to split up the family, add stops, and I even pulled the young family card like I was the bad guy from the movie Titanic using the random kid he picked up to hop on a boat reserved for women and children. “I have a child!” No dice. No seats. 

After about an hour at the rebooking desk, we were able to accept a 9 pm flight the following night. This new flight would put us in Columbus, Ohio. Now, many Michiganders would rather wait a few days for a direct flight before voluntarily going to Ohio but I have family in Buckeye country so I know how to handle their type. When in doubt yell “O-H!…” After that you’ll be treated like Maurice Clarett was by the boosters. I felt we’d be safe to enter. 

It was about 11 pm when we arrived at the hotel airport where my wife had booked us two rooms. She had booked the rooms on her phone while she had been simultaneously doing the heavy lifting in the rebooking negotiations. We were finally going to be able to rest our heads and close out a long frustrating day. 

Not quite. 

The hotel did not have rooms for us after all. It wasn’t that my wife didn’t book two rooms. She did and she showed the front desk worker her confirmation email which did indeed confirm our two rooms. For April 10th… 

Unfortunately, it was April 9th for a few more minutes. So close but so far away. 

I’ve been married for 1.5 decades and I finally am starting to figure some of this marriage stuff out. I pulled a veteran move that night. I didn’t say a damn thing. I did what any other former suburban 90’s kid turned family man would have done at this moment on April 9th, 2021- I put in BOTH AirPods, opened up my Apple Music, and hit shuffle on DMX. If “Bring Your Whole Crew” wasn’t going to get me ready to tackle whatever was coming next I don’t know what would.

We did find a hotel and we did get some sleep that night. The next day we awoke and Uber’d to Marshall’s and Nordstrom’s rack to get some clothes. It wasn’t until we returned to the room and laid out our haul that I realized I dropped the ball on buying myself a clean pair of underwear. I had been too busy trying to find the most ridiculous outfit I could find to purchase for the airport journey that was to come. (I thought a goofy outfit may cheer everyone up a little)

We flew into Columbus the following evening around midnight. My wife had to find our own flight to Detroit. She was successful with that but we had 6 hours to kill. We ended up sleeping on benches in the airport. I must be getting soft in my old age. I couldn’t fall asleep in the conditions we were in. I sat up around 4:00am- cold and tired. I looked around and saw that my family all had white sheets that had been placed over them by a mysterious airport fairy that must have ran out because I didn’t get one. Where the hell was mine? Why didn’t I make the cut? They looked cozy, warm and comfortable but at the time their unconscious bodies covered in white sheets looked a little eery. Maybe it wasn’t safe to enter Buckeye Country. 

We finally boarded the plane in Columbus heading to Detroit. Moments away from takeoff the Captain got on the mic and told us there was a maintenance issue and we needed to de-plane. Ouch. 

Hours later we were back on, in the air, and we did (finally) make it to Detroit.

First world problems. 

So what’s my point and what does this have to do with positivity?

As frustrating and expensive as this all was (we spent $3,000 to get home and at this point American Airlines is offering $100 vouchers…) it was not a big deal to me. I’ve experienced much worse and I constantly remind myself of that. 


  • Not being able to fly out of Miami pales in comparison to the time I was not able to fly out of Fallujah, Iraq when we were supposed to go home. We were supposed to leave by helo (helicopters) from a base (Camp Baharia) just outside of the city of Fallujah. The city where we had been housed for months. We were to fly safely OVER the city and to Al-Taqaddum Air Base (TQ). There were C-130’s there that would take us out of Iraq and into Kuwait. Flying over the city was going to remove the risk of getting into one last rumble on one of our last days in theatre. It was the much safer option for us. We had actually turned in the majority of our ammo leading up to the departure. The rest of the companies in our Battalion had already successfully left. Then a sand storm came through which left us with only one option. Drive our asses right through the heart of Fallujah, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, one last time. We were all a little quieter than usual as we reloaded our reissued ammo into our magazines leading up to the convoy departure. 


  • Having to wear my Under Armor underwear for 72 hours paled in comparison to the time I wore one pair of Under Armor shorts as underwear and rotated just 2 pairs of socks for weeks while in Fallujah. We had been sent out into the city to establish an outpost (OP). If we were told how long we’d be gone- I missed the memo. I would rinse off one pair of socks with water and hang them up to dry so the next day I could wear those and rinse off the other pair. We didn’t have showers. We had bottled water and baby wipes. I don’t remember if I ever took off the Under Armor shorts that I wore as underwear during this stretch of weeks. Under Armor was still relatively new so I may have overestimated the capabilities of that dry fit material. Gross, I know. 


  • Struggling to sleep on an airport bench pales in comparison to struggling to sleep in an abandoned, blown up, dirty building after getting woken up by small arms fire and/or explosions. 


Here’s my point: None of what I’ve been through has anything to do with what my family was feeling and experiencing in those moments. I promise you it would have added ZERO value if I would have reminded my wife of those scenarios and told her how great we have it- in that moment. 

I’ve tried to devalue struggles we’ve had in the past this way or by comparing us to others we know that had ran into a more significant roadblocks in their life. In one of those moments she reminded me that we don’t need to compare and that it’s okay to hurt and be upset sometimes. Basically, she was saying that we don’t need to have it worse than everyone else before we can give ourselves the green light to vent, complain, cry or whatever the chosen outlet is. She was right. 

Admiral Jim Stockdale was a POA from 1965 to 1973 in the brutally infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. In Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” he shares Admiral Stockdale’s thoughts:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When asked who didn’t make it out, the Admiral replied: 

“Oh, that’s easy. The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And then Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end-which you can never afford to lose-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

As leaders it is so important that our default is positivity. The opposite default mindset will CRUSH morale and eventually crush our business. 

We also have to know our audience.

We also have to show empathy.

We also have to confront the facts of our reality.

There is always a way to spin it. There is always a way to look at the glass half full. Nine times out of ten that is what we should do. 

Be careful though. There is a diminishing return on that positivity. 

Sometimes things suck. Acknowledge it. Don’t dwell on it- but acknowledge it. This will keep you from being the boy who cries wolf as a leader. If you are willing to show empathy and admit that your team was just dealt a bad hand in that moment, they will respond better when you dig your heels in and push positivity in times of adversity. 



Positivity: Discover the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009) Page 32

Good to Great. Jim Collins (HarperBusiness; 1st edition October 16, 2001)


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