The Case for Optimism

Only the Optimists Survive


"Only the paranoid survive" was the famous call to action by Intel pioneer Andy Grove, and that hypervigilant motto undeniably has worked wonders during his illustrious career.

For leaders in today's and tomorrow's business climate, however, I suspect that a far more appropriate motto would be: "Only the optimists survive."

How Optimists Define Reality

Limits, constraints, and reduced expectations are the conventional prescriptions for our time. True leaders, however, are able to see beyond an anemic zeitgeist in order to sense opportunities that can employ and house a multitude.

Optimists have a sixth sense for possibilities that realists can't or won't see. That gives the optimist the ability to "define reality" for others in a compelling way—which is the first task of a leader, as author Max DePree has observed. This is not sentimentalism: It is the essence of creative pragmatism. It is good because it works.

The exemplar is Franklin Roosevelt, who seems to have been whispering to the collective consciousness lately. The leader who took over a crumbling nation in 1933 had bounced back a dozen years earlier from his own debilitating paralysis. FDR never conquered his personal paralysis so much as he kept it from controlling his destiny. This is an exceptional case of a crucible experience that forged a great leader, one who could dare to use "Happy Days are Here Again" as a campaign theme during the height of the Depression.

"Learned Optimism"

In study after study, the Rooseveltian trait of "hardiness" has been found to be crucial in determining whether good women and men with talent will make a difference. Psychologist Martin Seligman illustrated a yawning chasm between social animals who react to roadblocks with a sense of futility and those who react with a steely determination to master their destiny (again, hardiness). "Learned optimism" is Seligman's term for a person's capacity to join the latter group.

USC football coach Pete Carroll required bounce-back to find his true niche. Having been dismissed twice from the glory of NFL head-coaching positions, many others would have resigned themselves to despair, or at best to the TV commentary booth. Carroll continued to define himself, adapt, and develop his leadership philosophy in a way that allowed the next good opportunity to come into clear focus—and in time he became a bigger star in the college ranks than arguably any coach in the NFL ranks.

Many successful leaders imagine destiny summoning them, often in the face of their more pessimistic impulses. The late John Gardner, one of the seminal co-architects of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, suffered enough disappointments to fear his career would amount to toiling in obscurity. When I asked him several years ago how he went on to become the first Republican in LBJ's cabinet, able to play a shaping role in our nation, he responded: "There were some qualities there waiting for life to pull out of me." It's a haunting phrase, one which reflects how gifted leaders can appreciate the crucible of their own experiences. Over and over, I have seen that they can reflect upon these trials, learn, and come out more ready to lead.

The Role of Collaboration

Surviving and thriving through rises and crucibles also requires collaboration. We increasingly understand that humans evolved their communal capacities expressly to cope with environmental stresses. Far from seeing his incarceration in South Africa as inexorable defeat, Nelson Mandela used it as an opportunity to recruit the unlikeliest of prospects to his cause—some of his own prison guards. Such adaptivity, such ability to engage others as they go through their own crucible experiences, is a hallmark of leaders of substance.

As leaders draw in others, they must go beyond their natural preference for homogeneity of background or belief. A longtime teaching partner, University of Southern California President Steve Sample, has observed that biologically diverse ecosystems are tougher and more resilient than monocultures—and so too are organizations. In this uncertain global era, I believe that the best leaders will not merely employ diversity, but diversity on steroids. This will come more easily to a younger generation that is far more comfortable with a global context than the rest of us. They have traveled more than most of us, at younger ages, and are far more comfortable with dissimilar vantage points. Fully engaging the young, then, is one way to ensure that an organization breeds real diversity.

Making Setbacks into Stepping Stones

Of course, some of the same old rules of management will always apply. Hard work and luck still make a difference; and as golfing legend Ben Hogan noted, the more he practiced, the luckier he got. Yet optimism is what puts work and luck to proper use, helping the leader to see a new event as a serendipitous inflection point rather than a disruption. Steve Jobs' decision to fund the development of the iPod, while others were retrenching in the face of the dot-com bust, is just one such transforming moment of boldness.

A common expression in recent months has been, "It's too big too fail." But nothing is too big or too small to fail. Sustainable organizations are based on the same principles that guide successful individuals. Good organizations and good leaders, especially in our tense and uncertain moment in history, have the capacity to bounce back; to adapt as necessary; to persevere with an expectation of success; and to engage others in a shared sense of purpose; and to win a reputation for integrity through these other qualities.

This is not merely a recipe for good cheer; in our times, it's a blueprint for survival.

Warren Bennis, University Professor at the University of Southern California, is the author of a newly revised, 20th anniversary edition of On Becoming a Leader, which was named the best leadership book of all time by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten in their new volume, The 100 Best Business Books of All Time.

Getting In guest blogger Warren Bennis is a distinguished professor of business administration and chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. One of the world’s foremost experts on leadership, Bennis has written 30 books and numerous articles on leadership, change and creative collaboration. In 2005, he co-authored, with James O'Toole, a seminal article on the problems confronting management education, "How Business Schools Lost Their Way." His latest work is "Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership."

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