The Power of Optimism

I recently came across a senior manager who said something like this. “I don’t believe it is appropriate to put on a face of optimism, when everyone knows times are really tough. My people would pretty much know that I would be faking it, and I would look foolish.”

Let me get this right: optimism in tough times is disingenuous.

What do you think about that? Is she right?

Not only do I believe that’s a crock, I also believe it is a cop-out. Here is why. A little over a half century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of his most famous speeches. It was the “Promissory Note” speech, describing how the country had not lived up to its promise about freedom and equality for everyone. Many in the nation at that time were viewed as some kind of second class citizen, obviously not deserving of the freedoms granted everyone else. We are all familiar with the circumstances which resulted from the widespread discrimination of, and acceptance of inequality for Black people. I think we would all agree that it was a dire time of despair, hopelessness, and pain for many.

But at the end of his remarks, Dr. King uttered sixteen words that changed everything. He said:

“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

And with that transition, the Promissory Note speech evolved into “I Have A Dream,”  King’s vision of a better America rooted in his faith, hope, and optimism. He painted very vivid images of what the country could be, and he inspired a nation. King’s remarkable message remains the key measuring stick for our progress in equal rights to this day.

Over the years I have asked literally thousands of people to share their thoughts and comments after carefully listening to King’s words. As you might imagine, the comments were frequently about the clear, relatable word pictures, its very inclusive nature, and the desired hope it provided to everyone. There were similar remarks about King’s deep passion for and unswerving commitment to his vision. “It came from the heart,” people often said, “because he hardly ever looked at his notes.”

One comment I can tell you I never, ever heard. Absolutely no one ever said, “I think Dr. King was disingenuous. He simply put on his game face and went out and faked it in front of a couple of hundred thousand people.” Ironically, it was the hope and optimism that King provided in those dismal days, which defined him as the leader he was (and is still) recognized to be.

Regardless of the circumstances, leaders seek to inspire people to keep moving forward. They do not hide the hard truth of challenging times. They accept it, acknowledge it, and mobilize people to change that truth into a better future. It is precisely those most difficult times, when real leaders rise to the occasion, to rally people forward with hope and optimism.

Throughout your career, you and your teams will certainly face some tough times. Will you be one who simply tells people to stop whining and deal with it? Or, will you be the leader who steps up and shows them a promising reason to keep coming in everyday and doing the very best they can.

Spend less time worrying about how you might look, and more time inspiring others. And remember that it is literally impossible to inspire without some kind of optimism. Don’t ever let the difficulties of today and tomorrow, drown the dreams you and your teams have of a positive and rewarding future. 

All the best and Lead On!

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