The Optimism Paradox
"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood," said Barack Obama near the start of his inaugural address. Now is a time of "nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable." In spite of these storm clouds, however, Obama asserted that national decline is avoidable -- not inevitable -- because we can still "choose our better history." Such greatness, he said, is earned by "the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things."
In this way, the new president's inaugural address straddled one of the enduring paradoxes of leadership: While optimism is an essential quality, so too is realism. Without an infectious confidence that challenges can be met, fear can morph into fatalism. But without recognition of the severity of the challenges, aspiration can translate into recklessness.
Consider the moment of decision facing General Robert E. Lee as his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia faced the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the morning of July 3, 1963. During the prior two days of battle, Lee's army of 75,000 troops had pushed the Union army of 95,000 troops, led by General George Meade, into a defensive line some 3.5 miles in length.
To deliver a decisive blow to help end the Civil War on Confederate terms, General Lee decided to attack the center of the Union line on the afternoon of July 3. With calculated optimism, he concluded that a force of 12,000 infantry, with General George Pickett in command, could pierce the Union line and shatter the opposing force, scoring a game-changing victory at Gettysburg for the Confederacy.
Yet Lee's optimism was not calculated enough. Unknown to Lee, Meade has concentrated his forces at the very point of the Confederate attack. What has come to be know as Pickett's Charge failed catastrophically, resulting in Lee's defeat at Gettysburg and a downward path toward surrender at Appomattox.
Without a leader's confidence in mission, others may not follow. At the same time, without a hard-hitting appraisal of what is required to achieve the mission, those who do follow may fail to mobilize what is required.
Barack Obama's inaugural address reminded us that we all need a healthy combination of both optimism and realism. He extolled "firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke," but he also embraced the need to make "hard choices" informed by a realistic appraisal of what lies at the top of the stairway.
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