Monday, July 11, 2022

“Hopeful Optimism” is a fundamental requirement for Leaders… now more than ever.


As I mentioned in a recent essay, the headlines of global warfare, mass killings, economic downturns and renewed attacks on our democratic institutions have been exceedingly difficult to navigate as an individual, none-the-less as an organizational leader.  In addition to these more macro (and more significant) issues, our business has been faced by inflationary cost pressures and recessionary headwinds like so many other enterprises large or small.  While we are still a wonderful business, in a strong growth mode filled with many untapped opportunities and an exciting acquisition on the horizon, these past few months have brought serious challenges and have required us to rethink our priorities and business plans for our upcoming fiscal year that kicks off August 1st.


It’s in this context that I wanted to share a few thoughts about how important it is for leaders to not only understand the challenges we are facing and work with the team to “steer” a successful path amidst those challenges…. It is vital we do so in the context of “hope” and “optimism” even when the challenges seem daunting.  Recently on a flight west, I “went looking for hope,” and read some essays and quotes from various world leaders across history that were able to find and sustain “hopeful optimism” in exceedingly challenging contexts.  One famous quote is from Nelson Mandela speaking of his 27+ years incarcerated on Robbin Island, a hard labor prison in South Africa run by the Apartheid government at that time,  



“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”



Completely humbled and inspired by Mandela’s comments and “spirit,” I assessed our situation and came away a bit more hopeful indeed.  


While the business has its challenges, they are actually fairly visible and on the whole things we can work to control (expense management and wholesale pricing actions in the light of strong inflation pressures).  Equally they are challenges not faced solely by us, but are pressures being felt by our competitors in equal OR WORSE fashion!  Things might be tough, but we might be gaining advantages on the competitive landscape!


As I think about our organization broadly, and our leadership team specifically I am very encouraged.  While this group is broadly young (many have never faced a tough recession and high inflation at the same moment), it is so strong and a very “ingenious” bunch of problem-solvers.  Their energy and enthusiasm are strong but will be tested in the challenging days ahead; a team that I feel lucky to have a chance to lead in this specific moment!


Now I don’t want to suggest that our challenges today IN ANY WAY compare with Mandela’s plight on Robbin Island…. BUT …. If he was able to find a path of “hopeful optimism” in the midst of that nightmare, how can we as leaders today not find that spark in our landscape??  Our organizations and teams need us now more than ever…. to be candid and clear-eyed on the challenges ahead but also energized and forward-looking ( “keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward”)  on the opportunities and possibilities that lie ahead… they need us to be “hopeful optimists” now more than ever!

postscript: Nine years ago, I wrote an essay about Nelson Mandela that is also very appropriate to the challenges of today.... take a look if you have a second: