Arent the movies great? For the last 100 years theyve informed us, inspired us, touched our hearts and spared us reading Moby Dick for 10th grade book reports. The great ones hold up and 40, 60, even 80 years later, they still entertain and provide themes to ponder. I watched one of my favorites the other day, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, made in 1969, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. As I watched, it occurred to me that, as the leader of the Hole-In-the-Wall Gang, Butch has certain undeniable leadership qualities including boundless enthusiasm and optimism. He shares his big dreams with his partner in crime, including his plan for them to go to Bolivia where hes heard that the gold is plentiful and the banks are easy.
Optimistic leadership is about more than idly hoping for the best.
In one classic scene the outlaws have been pursued for days by a relentless posse and find themselves at the edge of a cliff where there is no apparent escape and Butch says, Next time I say we go to Bolivia, we go to Bolivia
. Sundance answers, Next time in a tone that says he knows that there will never be one. Theyre outnumbered and have no available cover as their pursuers take up positions to shoot it out. Then Butch looks down into the deep chasm to the river below and says, No, well jump! to which Sundance, after a glance below, replies, Like hell
we will. But Butch somehow overcomes all of Sundances objections including the revelation that he cant swim (Butch laughs and says, What are you, crazy? The fall
will probably kill you.) so they jump and–against all odds–survive to fight another day. Of course the scene is just a movie invention but its a pretty good metaphor for optimism as a leadership principle.
The most often-stated criticism I hear about optimistic people is rooted in an assumption that optimists just live in denial and engage in magical thinking. Optimistic leadership is about more than idly hoping for the best. Its about seeing possibilities when others cant and using that same optimistic perspective to inspire others to join them in the risk. Optimism is a critical component for leadership success, especially in a time of change or crisis specifically because optimistic leaders are able to do 3 things that a pessimist at the helm could never do:
- Optimists focus on opportunity– The rise of the information age has changed the way we connect, buy, and how we get our news, information and entertainment. While the pessimist decried the decline of print, professional standards and the personal touch, the optimists got busy developing Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and distance learning. The difference was one of focus. Agreed, none of those now ubiquitous services are all good, but all are the result of embracing change and seeing the future through the lens of possibility. Because of this tendency to imagine possibilities represented by change rather than the potential threats, optimists tend to embrace change quickly and so are typically the first ones to profit from it.
- Optimists inspire others. The real power of leadership lies in the way leaders inspire others to follow. We all have a desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Optimistic leaders communicate that possibility to others and win over their hearts and minds as theyre drawn to that positive energy.
- Optimists are solution-centered rather than obstacle-oriented. Its important to have a reality check and ignoring evidence that something isnt working isnt optimism, its delusion. Still, the optimist stays tuned into possibilities and alternatives. The overriding concern of the pessimist is, why wont it work where the optimists is how could it work? That subtle difference means the optimist tends to see paths where the pessimist sees walls or pitfalls. So, on the journey, the optimist may encounter plenty of detour signs but rarely a dead end.
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, what makes the affable Butch a natural leader is the same thing that makes optimistic people so well suited to lead; their ability to see possibilities and to inspire others to take the leap with them.
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