Intel co-founder Robert Noyce once said that optimism is “an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?” Noyce and his partners started Intel in 1968, a year when the U.S economy faced the greatest crisis since the Great Depression. In addition, tumultuous events shook the foundation of American society: riots and protests, the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was a tough year to start a business, but Noyce embraced change and built a brand that changed the world.
In a previous column I revealed the 7 secrets of inspiring leaders. Optimism is one of those ingredients and I believe it is the one essential trait that today’s leaders must exhibit. Here are five reasons why optimists make better leaders.
Optimists start businesses. An optimistic sees opportunity where others see uncertainty and despair. When the economy is down like it is today and millions of people are out of work, the pessimist uses those factors as excuses to stay in place. The optimist refuses to let macro-economic trends impose hurdles on their imagination. Nothing will dissuade them from starting businesses that ultimately put people to work. As Winston Churchill once said, “optimists see opportunities in every difficulty.” Optimists have the successful mindset. You simply cannot start a successful business in a difficult economic environment unless you cast off the negative emotions of fear, uncertainty, and worry.
Optimists are inspiring communicators. Inspiration means, “to elicit a fervent enthusiasm.” You cannot elicit enthusiasm for an idea unless you’re a strong communicator. It’s no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, one of the most optimistic Americans we’ll ever know, was designated “the great communicator.” Colin Powell served under Reagan and said that optimism was the secret behind Reagan’s charisma. In fact everyone who knew Reagan described him as an eternal optimist, someone who believed in a better future. I work directly with some of the world’s best communicators. Each and every one of them is more optimistic than the average person.
Optimists rally people to a better future. Reagan had his share of skeptics, but his speeches brought out the best in people. They wanted to live in the world he painted with his words. Another optimist—Winston Churchill—also faced skeptics. In Churchill’s case, nearly the entire British population was skeptical about going to war with Nazi Germany. Churchill single-handedly turned around public opinion in World War II with a series of optimistic speeches, painting a picture of how Britain could turn back the Nazi tide washing over Europe. In a matter of weeks, the British attitude shifted from one of appeasement to one of certainty that they could fight and win. Members of Churchill’s wartime Cabinet said his words and attitude made people feel braver in his presence.
Optimists see the big picture. We all need optimists in our lives to fight the recency effect. The recency effect is a psychological term that simply means the most recent experiences we go through are the ones we are likely to remember and we assume those experiences will continue into the future. It’s the primary reason investors pull their money out of stocks when the market goes down and put their money in when the market is nearing a high. As any astute investor will tell you, that’s exactly the wrong way to invest in the market.
The following example is offered in the Wikipedia definition of the recency effect: “if a driver sees an equal total number of red cars as blue cars during a long journey, but there happens to be a glut of red cars at the end of the journey, he or she is likely to conclude that there were more red cars than blue cars throughout the drive.” We need leaders who are immune to the recency effect and who see the big picture, reminding us of the long-term. No recession is ever as bad as it seems in the moment. If you’re surrounded by pessimists you’re likely to assume that nothing will get better—the economy or your personal situation.
Optimists elicit super human effort. In Colin Powell’s new book, It Worked For Me, he says that great leaders know things will get better because they themselves will make them better! Powell says military training is the best preparation for approaching difficult situations with an optimistic outlook. The following was drilled into Powell: “Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger. You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion, but you must never show that you are cold or hot. You may be terrified, but you must never show fear. You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.” People must believe that no matter how bad things look, you will make them better.
Powell is not an unabashed optimistic. He tempers his optimism with logic. “Maybe it can’t be done, but always start out believing it can be done until facts and analysis pile up against it. Don’t surround yourself by skeptics but don’t shut out skeptics who give you solid counterviews.” Great advice.
In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley describes how, if we look at the world rationally, there’s no other conclusion than to believe we are living in an unprecedented era of prosperity. Yes, there are some places that are worse off. “But the vast majority are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been.”
Your employees are looking to you for inspiration and they’re not getting it from the news headlines. Today we need business leaders who inspire their employees, clients, and customers, infusing them with the confidence that in the end, all will be well.