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Optimism – Leaders Must Have It and It Can Be Learned

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Optimism – Leaders Must Have It and It Can Be Learned

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.

[Editor’s note: Many recent surveys of middle market CXO’s shown highly-tempered optimism for their company’s prospects, while less so for the economy as a whole.  The achingly slow recovery and political uncertainty both at home and abroad has clearly taken its toll.  The following article, first published in the August 2011 issue of PRESIDENT&CEO magazine, reminds us that optimism isn’t really an option for middle market leaders.  It’s a requirement.]

Presidential campaigns provide interesting insights into the human condition and about leadership.  Regardless of your political persuasion, I believe that the results of the last election hinged mostly on Obama’s attitude about the future. In the midst of so much fear about the financial crisis and other threats, Obama spoke 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.”
"Pessimism is not the primary American mindset."

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 any presidency is the maximum 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.  Pessimism is not the primary American mindset.

I find this optimistic characteristic of special interest because optimism also tends to be a characteristic of successful business leaders.  Millions of business people start up and grow businesses – even during a major recession.  Those risk taking business people 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.

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