Optimism – Leaders Must Have It and It Can Be Learned

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. © 2009 

Most of my readers and clients know that I am intensely curious about human psychology and how it impacts personal and professional effectiveness. The U.S. Presidential race provided much food for thought. This month’s briefing is not a statement of my political orientation but my observations on the psychology behind a successful campaign for President and a lesson that can be learned for being a successful executive/leader.

In the midst of so much fear about the financial crisis and other threats, Obama has spoken calmly and forcefully about what “we can do.” He, much like Ronald Reagan, appealed to the basic optimistic psychological underpinnings of our nation. Reagan’s campaign theme was, “It’s Morning in America.” Obama’s was, “Yes we can.”

Obviously, no one would consciously elect a President or follow an executive who says, “We’re not up to the task and I don’t have faith that we can succeed.” I believe that Americans, in particular, simply cannot accept being on the defensive for very long, e.g., we need to protect ourselves from the bad guys and that must be our primary focus.  Two terms of a presidency is the max we can tolerate being that defensive because that stance is too pessimistic. Even though it’s true that we have to protect ourselves from the bad guys, making that our primary focus is depressing and ultimately, debilitating.

In addition to several other factors, I feel, that the primary reason Obama was elected was that he embodied a spirit of optimism in the face of adversity that we sorely needed. A majority of Americans needed and wanted to follow someone who believed, “Yes we can.”

Of course, there are many other reasons behind Obama’s success and McCain’s loss.  However, I find this optimistic characteristic of special interest because optimism also tends to be a characteristic of successful entrepreneurs and small business people. Those millions of small business people start up and grow businesses – even during a major recession. They provide the real fuel for our enduring financial success as a nation.

After all, you have to be optimistic to start a business. You have to believe that you can succeed at the venture.

How big a role does optimism really play?

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., past president of the American Psychological Association and the author of the book, Learned Optimism, has spent most of his professional life investigating optimism. He cites some interesting research about optimism. One study he cited caught my eye conducted with MetLife that found that “new salesmen who were by nature, or training (emphasis mine) optimists – and who were, in a sense, emotionally resilient – sold 37 percent more insurance in the first two years on the job than did pessimists. And, during the first year, pessimists quit at twice the rate of optimists.” *

I’m going to assume that I do not have to spend any more time convincing you that optimism is an important ingredient for being successful in business. If you doubt me, please read Seligman’s book. Instead, let’s look at the implications of this leadership characteristic.

Senior executives, especially CEOs, are involved in an ongoing psychological dance with their followers/employees. No matter who the CEO is - employees imagine who he or she is. They project onto their boss their expectation of what a boss should act like and expect that he or she should behave in a way consistent with their belief. One of the characteristics followers hope/imagine about senior executive leaders is that he or she can successfully lead them through the ups and downs of business/life. They need to feel that their leader is optimistic about the future and believes they can achieve their goals.

The implication of the above for executives is that you too need to inspire that sense of “we can do it,” if you want to successfully lead over the long term. Threatening people with job loss, for example, is a short-term measure that keeps the mediocre from quitting but will drive top performers out of a company to greener, more inspiring pastures.

As Seligman noted, some people are born optimists while others are learned optimists. In my executive coaching work, I frequently teach born optimists how to temper their optimism with pragmatism so as not to come across as Pollyannaish and thereby loose credibility. For everyone else, I help them learn to use techniques that born optimists unconsciously use.

If you want to learn more about how to grow and cultivate optimism in yourself or in your organization, please contact me.

* Source, Learned Optimism, page 112 (available through my book recommendation page)