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Does a positive outlook, or at least the veneer of one,
benefit a leader? Should optimism and warmth be considered an important part of
the effective leader’s toolkit? And when
it comes to the biggest stage — the Office of the President of the United
States — does optimism correlate with historical perceptions of effectiveness?
Virginia Darden School of Business Professor and Dean Emeritus Bob
Bruner recently tackled these questions and more during a presentation for
Darden alumni, sharing his research into the leadership lessons we might draw
from the optimism — or lack thereof — of U.S. Presidents. Among other projects, Bruner is studying and
teaching about the leadership lessons of the Presidents.
The 44 presidents represent compelling case studies in
leadership traits, as they have passed through a “demanding gauntlet” to
achieve their rank and were elected at least in part because a large portion of
the electorate believed they would make good leaders, Bruner said.
Using the presidents’ own self-narratives as the basis for
much of his research, Bruner said the sentiment analysis of the post-World War
II presidents showed:
The generally optimistic sentiments may be a key ingredient
in presidential influence, motivating both self and others, Bruner said.
At the same time, biographies and contemporary observers
suggest that the public optimism of presidents hid private doubts and worries. If
so, are presidents being “authentic,” a trait that people say they most desire
in their leaders?
“Perhaps presidential optimism is a different kind of
authenticity: fidelity to the leadership necessary to sustain the nation’s values
and mission,” Bruner said.
This kind of “optimistic authenticity” was effectively
demonstrated by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower during the Cold War,
by President Gerald Ford in the aftermath of Watergate, and virtually all
others. Authenticity to the self can be a trap for leaders, but authenticity on
behalf of the challenges and opportunities of the group is vitally important.
There can be downsides to the trait, Bruner said. A
cognitive bias toward optimism can lead to “risky behavior.” And a culture of
optimism might discourage debates or the delivery of bad news.
Bruner said most can agree that presidents — along with
medics, pilots and people who operate nuclear power plants — should not be so
optimistic as to be poorly attuned to potential danger, for instance. He suggested
that “realistic optimism” is the appropriate middle ground for a leader — able
to set an optimistic tone while “owning the bad news” and not inflating good
“Optimism is an instrument for leadership,” Bruner said,
noting his own experience attempting realistic optimism during the depths of
the financial crisis while serving as Darden dean. “Optimism motivates, pessimism
Given the current political backdrop for Bruner’s
presentation, the professor was not surprisingly peppered with questions about
President Donald Trump, whose campaign pronouncements and inaugural addresses
carried dire warnings about the state of the country and the world alongside
his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
Bruner, however, was not yet ready to make judgments on how
Trump would fit into his research narrative or be judged by historians, given
the early days of the new administration. He pointed, however, to the
commentary he published
in Fortune in the waning days of the election, noting that Americans want to be
led by an optimist.
Said Bruner, “Trump will be a focus of deep study for all of
us who study leaders and presidents, and I think there is more data to come.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business
delivers the world’s best
business education experience to prepare
entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and
Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for
teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research.
Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public
university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sophie ZunzDirector of Media RelationsDarden School of BusinessUniversity of VirginiaZunzS@darden.virginia.edu+1-434-924-7502
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