How Leaders Can Display the Right Type of Optimism

‘Disciplined faith’ means processing both opportunities and dangers

Back Web Only Jul 27, 2016 By Gary Xavier

Imagine you are in an elevator that has become stuck. You and two other people are trapped.  Suddenly, the elevator violently jolts knocking all of you to the ground. You hear the bending and screeching of medal. One person says, “We are going to die!” The other says, “Not to worry, we will be out in no time!” What would you say?

In the past, I may have been the second person, but I am a recovering optimist. I am not against optimism: I just believe that blind optimism is useless in 90 percent of the situations we find ourselves in. What I’d like to discuss is a specific type of optimism I call “disciplined faith,” which stands in contrast to what I consider the wrong kind of optimism known as “Pollyanna optimism.” Disciplined faith refers to a person processing both the dangers and the opportunities when exposed to an unknown or unexpected situation.  

I learned about disciplined faith when I attended a military school called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape). This school prepares special operators in the event they become a prisoner of war. I was a sniper in training, so the risk for me was high. Once captured, I remembered one of our objectives in the prison was to keep up communication with other prisoners. We did this through a series of scratches and taps that stood for different letters in the alphabet. After hearing a fellow inmate scratch the wall in response to mine, a person I never saw gave me hope.

This tactic of communication was used by Admiral James Stockdale at the Hanoi Hilton where he was imprisoned for eight years in Vietnam before eventually being released in 1973. This tactic makes men who never see one another feel a sense of relationship and provides something worth living for. Stockdale’s behavior at Hanoi has been called the Stockdale Paradox. This paradox describes the tension we feel between pessimism and optimism in moments of trial. We think it needs to be either/or. The Stockdale Paradox illustrates how important it is for people to accept and address the brutal realities one faces, while at the same time believing they can overcome the situation. This is disciplined faith.  

Dr. Dennis Charney, a neurologist, psychiatrist and dean at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York has done research on the topic of resilience. In his book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, he mentions a 45-year-old man named Jimmy Dunne, who is an incredible example of disciplined faith:

Jimmy was playing golf preparing for a big tournament on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The office of his financial services firm was located in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. When he finally reached the city, after hearing of the terrorist attack, he learned that out of 171 employees, 66 had died. This left 71 children under age 18 without a father or mother. All computer systems and paperwork for the firm was destroyed; the client list was vaporized. To make matters much worse, two of the three managing partners were killed. Jimmy was the third partner; the tragedy made him the senior managing partner instantly. His first response was to aid the families of the deceased: The firm paid salaries through the end of the year, and continued to pay out bonuses and health benefits for the next five years. They also set up a fund for the education of children who lost a parent, and provided counseling for all family members and surviving employees. This was Jimmy’s verbal response to the team about moving forward, according to the book:

“Look, everybody is re-evaluating their lives after 9/11. That’s fine. You can go ahead and re-evaluate your life. that’s OK. And some of you may decide that coming to the city every day and chasing the dollar is not worth it, and that you should work in the post office and teach lacrosse. That’s great. Some of you may want to go take a trip around the world. That’s fine too.  But I can tell you what I am gonna do. I’m gonna put on my Brooks Brothers suit every day, and I am gonna come to work, and I am gonna rebuild this firm, and I am gonna pay for these benefits and I am not gonna give in. That is what I have decided to do. Now for those of you who want to be doing the same thing, we have to be doing it now. And those of you who want to re-evaluate things and think differently, I wish you well. Go do it.”

By the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the firm hired 81 new employees and closed 59 deals, including mergers worth $2.7 billion. Jimmy acknowledged not only the brutal realities, but also everyone’s individual realities. He did not make their minds up for them, or display blind optimism about the future. He stated what he would do and if anyone wanted to join him, the time is now.   

Disciplined faith is acknowledging the world is broken, but is also saying something broken can be fixed. This possibility gives us hope. Jimmy’s disciplined faith was acknowledging the terrorists motive to kill the American spirit and then responding with taking care of his people.  Stockdale’s disciplined faith was acknowledging his captor’s motives and then focusing on the men in the camp. When you find yourself in the middle of a hard situation, see the brutal and fight for what’s possible. You may yet become a dealer in hope.