A lesson in US presidential leadership: optimism


Originally created in 1885 for George Washington’s birthday, Presidents Day is now widely regarded as a day to reflect not only on the first President of the United States, but on all who held the office.

Robert F. Bruner, professor and dean emeritus at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, didn’t just reflect on these leaders, and not just for a day; he formally researched their qualities and looked at one of the most interesting facets of their leadership: general and widespread optimism.

The caliber of leadership

A financial economist by training, Bruner said that during his 10-year tenure as Dean of Darden, he came to vividly understand that the caliber of leadership, “more than finance or any other business specialty,” is essential to the success of a team and its business. Now that he has returned to his professorship at Darden, his research has focused on what makes a good leader and has focused on the “compelling sample of leaders” that constitute US presidents.

Bruner has almost achieved his life’s goal of reading the key biographies of each president, and that reading guided his research. He thinks it’s time we started taking presidents at their word, so to speak, by delving into their memories and speeches for evidence of their inner thoughts and feelings.

Using a combination of techniques from both literary studies and social science to perform “sentiment analysis,” he found that the writings of post-WWII presidents showed significantly more optimism than literature. popular of the same period.

He was not entirely surprised by the result. “Pessimistic leaders anywhere are an anomaly because pessimism can be demotivating,” Bruner said.

But optimism is not just a prerequisite for leaders. Bruner, author of “Better Angels of Our Nature: Optimism in Presidential Leadership” and “Optimism in Presidential Leadership: Case of Eisenhower’s Smile,” wants to explore how optimism and other attributes characterize effective leadership.

Realistic optimism

Optimism, admittedly, is a mixed bag. It sometimes gets bad press among hard-working intellectuals and professionals, for whom rational skepticism is the preferred mental framework and mode of self-presentation. And too much optimism can lead to risky behavior and the neglect of powerful threats. Therefore, Bruner said, the lessons to be learned from presidential optimism must involve attention to the types of challenges the leader faces, as well as ethics and purpose.

Like other leadership qualities, optimism is neither a sure-fire nor a complete guide to being a good leader, although it is important. While Dwight Eisenhower comes across as the most optimistic of postwar presidents, his example also illustrates well another of Bruner’s conclusions, that there is a “small and insignificant” correlation between optimism and a measure of l legacy of a president: his classification by historians. President Trump’s election after a relatively negative rhetoric campaign also turned out to be an exception to a previous finding that nine out of 10 times the most optimistic candidate wins – although Bruner warned he was too early to draw conclusions about the relative optimism of the new president. .

Overall, Bruner advises leaders to practice “realistic optimism,” measured against what is appropriate for their audience, their organization and the situation they are facing.

Tools in the leader’s toolbox

While Bruner’s advice clearly goes against Machiavelli’s claim that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved, they do have one thing in common: an undercurrent of pragmatism.

  • Cultivated optimism: You can cultivate optimism in word and deed; it doesn’t have to be an innate or constant personality trait. Instead of Pollyanna, think of Eisenhower’s smile. Bruner wrote an article on how he embodied Eisenhower’s deliberate decision to exude optimism and warmth even while feeling fear, anger, fatigue and despondency. His optimism was an “emotional reinforcement” as much as a political stance. It has helped him, his staff and the country as a whole remain resilient in times of trouble.
  • Given Eisenhower’s example, it may seem contradictory for Bruner to also suggest that another key to optimistic leadership is authenticity. “Maybe presidential optimism is genuine for something other than yourself,” he said. Rather, presidential optimism is “the authenticity of the mission and the needs of the community.” This is the kind of optimism that Dwight Eisenhower practiced.
  • Small gestures: Eisenhower’s optimism benefited both his immediate community and the general public. Bruner suggests learning from her example by purposefully developing a positive work environment through “the kind of actions that speak volumes”. These can be small actions, such as greeting people, emphasizing a common culture of openness and open doors. Through exhortation and example, leaders can create an environment that goes beyond a transactional model in which every interaction is either a victory or a loss, to a relational model where coworkers can feel a deeper connection. each other.

“A lot of what I’m saying, I think, is reflected well in Darden,” Bruner said. “My study of optimistic presidential leadership is a manifestation of what is happening at this school.”


Kevin E. Boling

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