Is Irrepressible Optimism Really The Most Important Thing For a Leader? #wcagls

Well, for those who have read the previous posts on the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I’m still mediating on the content and this is part of process for me – so thanks for coming back. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the line about leadership and optimism that Condoleezza Rice said:

“The single greatest need of a leader is irrepressible optimism.”

It’s a great sound byte. Instantly, all the note-takers dove their heads to write it down and so many on Twitter said, “Yes a great line under 140 characters!” – hashtag #wcals

Then this was reiterated later when Condi sarcastically said, “No one wants to follow a sour puss.”

All true, no one likes to follow a cranky pessimist. Optimism is important. “Irrepressible” is a great adjective for it and of all the presenters to articulate this, Condi was the perfect one. That said, in thinking about it, I think it comes up a little short and I’d like to point out a few things from my Gen-X perspective.

First, contrary to popular belief, Gen-Xers & Millennials understand optimism. In fact, many have stocked up on it only to have it crash down on us time and time again. What many are looking for are not leaders who are optimistic, but leaders who are truthful, self-aware and hopeful that the direction we are being asked to follow is what you earnestly believe (not because you have been directed to believe it and for you to not believe would lead to some sort of “punishment” or lesser reward – see? The leaders does this this because he truly believes in this). That’s what we many of us want.

Now I’ll admit, what I just wrote is not that great of a sound byte, definitely more than 140 characters but if you give it another read, there’s a lot of truth to it.

Let’s contrast this with “irrepressible optimism” and list a few examples.

If you are on the Titanic and you know the boat is sinking, the captain’s irrepressible optimism is not helpful. We may be inspired that he’s going down with the ship, dying with dignity, finishing the final moments of this life with humility and pray but optimism here is not what anyone without a life boat needs.

We all remember President Obama’s “Hope Campaign.” It promised quite a bit – among them a better future. Yet within a few years, countless people who voted for our president expressed their displeasure and many find themselves faced with a difficult decision this year. I think it’s fair to say that like countless campaigning politicians, he over-promised and over-delivered. It would seem his optimism has betrayed many in his constituency.

Now my point is not really about Obama-Romney and I’ll demonstrate this by saying, Romney is at risk of making the same mistake. He’ll talk about change, he’ll talk about turning the big boat around and launching America into a better and brighter future because among other reasons, that’s the leadership language. It gets followers, it gets you hired, it gets you elected but is it the best thing for a leader to say? “I’m not so sure and it highlights the battle of “The What I Need to Say to Do What I Need to Do” versus the “What I Should Say and Further Risk Not Getting the Position/Office/Etc.” If campaigns were a bit more honest, they might simply consider saying, “I really believe that I have the better plan of solutions and will do a better job than my opponent.”

For those of us who are in some type of position or role of leadership, let us be careful with how we throw around our optimism. Let us be sure to be genuine in our motives, truthful in our words and hopeful in what we truly believe.


  1. It would be interesting to contrast the difference between an optimistic leader and a hopeful one. I think that Condi’s quote works if you’re talking about hope (the real kind, not the political kind). If you’re just an upbeat leader, I think you will eventually frustrate your followers.

  2. In spite of our irrepressible optimism last night at the park, my son’s kite refused to fly without the required wind. I’m with you, Tim. Give me honesty and truth speak with competence and a dose of positivity and I’ll be much more apt follow. #spotafakeamileaway

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