Sir Winston Churchill delivered the ultimate pep talk to the world in his first speech as British Prime Minister on June 4, 1940. France had just fallen to Hitler's army and the British were on their heels after a massive retreat from Dunkirk. Everyone, including the British people and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, expected Churchill to settle for a negotiated peace with Germany. They were wrong. Churchill addressed the House of Commons that day and, while acknowledging a "colossal military disaster," he committed the British to fight until the end. "We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans… we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be… we shall never surrender."
According to University of Oklahoma classics professor Rufus Fears, polls showed that 80% of the British people opposed war with Germany before Churchill's famous speech. The British had lost a million soldiers just 20 years earlier in World War I, and were in no mood to suffer again. After the speech, however, public opinion had turned around—80% now supported Churchill's war policy. Even Churchill's sharpest critics said the speech "sent shivers" down their spines.
Great leaders in politics and business have an extraordinary ability to rally people who have lost hope. It's a rare skill, but available to anyone who learns the language of motivation. At its core, inspiration comes down to this: Inspiring leaders are more optimistic than the rest of us and they openly share that optimism in their speeches, presentations, and public communications.
False Hope vs. Rational Optimism
Of course, one must be careful of delivering false hope. Instead, strive for what is realistic and authentic. Churchill's speech offers a lesson in how this was accomplished. By the time Churchill delivered his famous quote—"we shall never surrender"—he had used 3,698 words to talk about how dire the situation appeared to be. There would be no sugarcoating of facts. Churchill's candid assessment was followed by a logical argument detailing the reasons he believed the challenges could be overcome. And, like every great Churchill speech, it ended with a hopeful vision of a better world, one in which the enemy would be defeated.
In times of uncertainty, your employees, customers, partners, and shareholders want to hear three things:
1. A candid assessment of the problem.
2. A strategy for overcoming the challenge.
3. A vision of what the business will look like if the strategy is successful.
By following these three steps, you will encourage, motivate, and inspire. This approach has been used by the world's great leaders—past and present. In February, billionaire
delivered the news that Berskshire Hathaway ( (BRKA)
) had recorded its worst year ever—a 62% drop in net income in 2008. How then could he argue that "America's best days lie ahead?" Buffett avoided false hope by being stunningly candid. He acknowledged that he himself had done some "dumb things" and outlined the sequence of events that had led to a "paralyzing fear" across the country. "Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails," Buffett quickly reminded his shareholders. He discussed the two great wars of the 20th century, panics and recessions, "virulent" inflation, the Great Depression, and so on. Buffett's conclusion: "Without fail, however, we've overcome them." By following the three-step process, Buffett successfully offered a rationally optimistic vision for the future of his company and the country.
Gates Looks to the Past
Due to what psychologists call the Recency Effect—the tendency to vividly recall recent experiences—it's important to talk about the past before painting a positive vision of the future. In an inspiring presentation on the topic of reducing childhood deaths, Microsoft ( (MSFT)
) co-founder and philanthropist
told the audience, "I am an optimist. I think any tough problem can be solved." Before launching into a strategy for fighting common killers like malaria, Gates spent the first part of his presentation citing breakthroughs of the last century that have increased life spans and reduced the spread of disease. By looking at the past, he explained, we can feel more confident about the future.
Like Churchill and Buffett, Gates is self-proclaimed optimist who speaks positively about the future, regardless of how intractable problems appear in the short term. Gates candidly addresses current problems, offers a specific strategy to overcome the problems, and ends with words of hope.
Optimism Is Contagious
An avalanche of studies has shown that positive emotions have positive consequences. University of California, Riverside psychology professor and The How of Happiness
author Sonja Lyubomirsky believes happiness is contagious. "We know that depressed people make other people feel down. The same goes for happiness," she told me. Lyubomirsky calls this contagion an "upward spiral." In other words, when we're around optimistic people, we are literally caught up in their energy field.
According to psychologists, optimism leads to happiness, both for the person thinking optimistically and for the person who listens to the words of the optimist. The power of your words can literally change the course of your company's future. For example, Ford ( (F)
speaks in such a hopeful, optimistic tone that his enthusiasm is said to literally rub off on employees. In an interview with The New York Times
, Ford's chief financial officer,
, said: "Alan is an exceptionally positive person. In such tough times, people need to see hope, and Alan articulates hope very well."
By delivering words of hope, your personal influence will increase and, most important, you may help contribute to a more robust economic recovery. "As a leader, your job is to steer and inspire," wrote Jack and Suzy Welch in a recent column
. You can have a successful career without being inspiring; but you will never be recognized as a true leader until you stop delivering a message of defeat and desperation and instead master the art of motivation. And that, my friends, requires optimism.