treee at sunset

feeling lucky all the time

In 2009, President Barack Obama faced the difficult decision about whether to proceed with his agenda for health care reform in the United States, on the heels of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even though the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress, it looked as if the Republicans would be able to block any health care legislation at all. The political consequences of failure would be great.

His advisors asked him somewhat facetiously, "Do you feel lucky? Because that is what it's going to take to pull this off."

Seven previous Democratic presidents had tried and failed to bring about any meaningful program for health care for all Americans. His advisors were hesitant and skeptical.

Obama walked over to the window, looked out, paused for a minute, and then asked, "Where are we?"

They answered, "The Oval Office."

He then asked, "What is my name?"

They said, "President Barack Obama."

He turned back to them, with a big smile, and said, "Of course, I feel lucky. I'm a black guy named Barack Obama and I'm the President of the United States. I feel lucky all the time."

And the rest is history.

Optimism in times of adversity is greatly affected by one's perception of his or her current situation. It is a valuable tool for getting things done, even in challenging times. The skill of optimism can be developed and improved. But rigid optimism in the face of reliable evidence to the contrary isn't a productive response.

Emotionally intelligent leaders use pessimism to bring the necessary clarity to a problem or to assume responsibility for a failure. This doesn't negate the benefits of optimism; it simply puts optimism into perspective.

Dwelling on pessimistic thoughts can set up a spiral of negative thinking that can become chronic and is contagious. Some partners in law firms have trouble letting go of their own mistakes and those of others. When this becomes a habit, negativity ripples out into the whole firm and into interactions with clients. The consequences are costly.

When we choose to use the competency of optimism, we decide whether or not to dispute pessimistic thoughts. We choose to put our problems, the situation, or another person's behavior into a broader and more positive perspective. Like President Obama, we demonstrate resilience in tough times and communicate positive expectations about the future. Like pessimism, optimism is also contagious.

playing a poor hand well

The Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote "Life is not so much a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes of playing a poor hand well."

The firms that will thrive in the 21st century are not necessarily the firms who have "held good cards" in the past. They will be the firms who know how to "reframe" the risks and adversities of today in new ways so they can play well.

Importantly, as leaders, this dynamic balance of pessimism and optimism keeps us on track. We can use pessimism as a tool for wisdom when we probe mistakes and problems, rather than denying that they exist. Yet we can equally choose not to remain in a pessimistic state of thinking. Optimism gives us the resilience we need to successfully pursue goals. We are capable of overcoming setbacks and obstacles, not because we are constantly "up," but because we know how to use the behaviors of pessimism and optimism to achieve what we want to in our careers and in managing the firm.

What are some of the risks of pessimism? We demonstrate pessimism when we:

1. Ascribe negative intentions or motives to others when they disagree or act in a manner that is inconsistent with our own preferences.

2. Dwell on what is wrong with a situation, others, and ourselves.

3. Assume opposition from others when they ask questions.

4. Isolate individuals or subgroups who "don't fit in," "don't get it," or whom we simply "don't like."

5. Criticize others about past errors in judgment or mistakes they have made.

There are times when the above behaviors feel completely justified. The negative expectations and impressions we have of others – and ourselves – may be based on actual disappointing experiences. However, an imbalance of pessimism creates a downward spiral of ever increasing negativity and a loss of control over our desired outcomes.

Blaming looks backward. When our mental energy is consumed by blaming, it blocks our minds and inhibits our ability to understand what happened and to improve on our ability to achieve our goals, individually and collectively.

What appears to be opposition from our colleagues and clients is often just a need for information, more time to think through options, or even reassurance about how the change will affect them. They may not ask questions in the most neutral or diplomatic terms when they feel stressed. Yet if we automatically assume they oppose a change, recommendation, or decision is a mistake. If we shut people out who could be important contributors, resources, and leaders because we "don't like them," we construct barriers and weaken our ability to get things done in the firm.

Constructive feedback is different from criticism. Criticism, like blaming, looks backward. Constructive feedback looks forward. The purpose for analyzing what went wrong is consciously to figure out how to improve for the future, not to chastise or punish. Honest self-reflection about what we can learn from our mistakes allows us to accept responsibility with the intent to expand our insights and develop our abilities to improve performance.

"We must have the courage to endure pessimism when its perspective is valuable. What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism – optimism with its eyes wide open. We must be able to use pessimism's keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows."

- Martin E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism (1998)


Lisa M. Walker Johnson