Optimistic Leaders Die First

Imagine you are in an elevator that has become stuck.  You and two other people are trapped.  Suddenly, the elevator violently jolts knocking all of you to the ground.  You hear the bending and screeching of medal.  One person says, “We are going to die!”  The other says, “Not to worry, we will be out in no time!”  What would you say?  In the past, I may have been the second person, but I am a recovering optimist.  I am not against optimism.  I just believe that blind optimism is useless in 90% of the situations we find ourselves in.  There is a certain sort of optimism that allows a leader to address brutal truths about a situation, but be absolutely certain they will prevail.  In this article, I’m going to make an argument for the right kind of optimism called discipline faith and against the wrong kind of optimism called pollyanna optimism.

I went to a military school called SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape).  This is a school that prepares you for becoming a prisoner of war.  Once I was captured, I remembered one of our objectives in the prison was to keep up communication with other prisoners.  We did this through a series of scratches and taps that stood for different letters in the alphabet.  After hearing a fellow inmate scratch the wall in response to mine.  A person I never saw gave me hope.  This tactic of communication was used by Admiral Jim Stockade at the Hanoi Hilton where he was imprisoned for eight years in Vietnam. This tactic made men who never saw one another feel a sense of relationship and provided something worth living for.  Admiral Stockdale’s disposition at Hanoi has been called the Stockdale Paradox.  This paradox discusses the tension we feel between pessimism and optimism in moments of trial.  We think it needs to be either/or.  The Stockdale Paradox illustrates how important it is for people to accept and address the brutal realities one faces while at the same time believe in overcoming the situation. This is what I call disciplined faith.

Dr. Dennis Charney, a neurologist, psychiatrist and dean at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has done research on the topic of resilience.  In his book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering life’s Greatest Challenges he mentions a 45-year old man named Jimmy Dunne.  This is an incredible example of disciplined faith:

Jimmy was playing golf preparing for the US Mid-Amateur Championship tournament on the morning of September 11, 2001.  He was located in Westchester, but the offices of his financial services firm Sandler O’Neil was located in the South Tower.  When he finally reached the city, he learned that out of 171 employees, 66 had died.  This left 71 children under age 18 without a father or mother.  All computer systems and paperwork was destroyed.  The client list was vaporized.  To make matters much worse, the managing partners of the firm were killed.  This made Jimmy the Chief Executive Officer instantly.  Jimmy’s first response was to the families of the deceased.  The firm paid salaries through the end of the year.  The firm paid bonuses and health benefits for five years.  The firm set up a fund for the education of the children who lost a parent and provided funds for counseling of all family members and surviving employees.  This was Jimmy’s verbal response to the team about moving forward:

“Look, everybody is re-evaluating their lives after 9-11. That’s fine.  You can go ahead and re-evaluate your life.  that’s OK.  And some of you may decide that coming to the city every day and chasing the dollar is not worth it, and that you should work in the post office and teach lacrosse.  That’s great.  Some of you may want to go take a trip around the world.  That’s fine too.  But I can tell you what I am gonna do.  I’m gonna put on my Brooks Brothers suit every day and I am gonna come to work, and I am gonna rebuild this firm, and I am gonna pay for these benefits, and I am not gonna give in.  That is what I have decided to do.  Now for those of you who want to be doing the same thing, we have to be doing it now.  And those of you who want to re-evaluate things and think differently, I wish you well.  Go do it.”

By the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the firm hired 81 new employees and closed 59 deals, including 15 mergers worth $2.7 billion.  Jimmy acknowledged not only the brutal realities, but also everyone’s individual realities.  He did not make their minds up for them.  He stated what he would do and if anyone wanted to join him, the time is now.

You may be thinking this is easy to see in extreme circumstances, but what about everyday life?  Yes, it is easier to see this materialize in disaster situations, but to say life is not extreme is itself a comment of blind optimism.  Isn’t living on the earth an extreme existence?  At any moment, something could change our life.  One wrong turn and we become paralyzed in a vehicle accident.  However, a different turn avoids crashing and paralysis.  We live on the edge all the time.  Acknowledging a broken world makes us better optimists and better pessimists.  A disciplined faith leader can defy their given temperament by recognizing the danger and seeking a relationship worth protecting.

©  2016 Gary Xavier. All rights reserved.



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