Great Business Leaders Are Unshakable Optimists (A Conversation With Harvard's Steven Pinker)

MCF Intersection

A regular snapshot of the trends, news and research in the world of philanthropy — and its impact on business.


Twenty years ago, I read a book called My American Journey by retired four-star general (and later U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell. One of his rules for successful leadership sticks with me to his day. Powell said, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

Years later I walked into Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara, California. I looked up and saw a quote by co-founder and Silicon Valley pioneer, Robert Noyce. It read: “Optimism is an essential ingredient of innovation.”

There’s that word again, I thought.

I’ve become a student of optimistic thinking because it’s the one consistent quality that I’ve observed in every inspiring leader I’ve met or have written about. Recently, I had the opportunity to explore the topic with New York Times bestselling author and Harvard cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker. Bill Gates—an unflinching optimist himself—calls Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, his “favorite book of all time.” According to Gates, “It makes the case for why you should be an optimist.”

Pinker’s book provides 500-pages of evidence that the world is getting better—exponentially better. As Pinker notes, “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being and almost no one knows about it.” Pinker’s argument is well-supported by prominent historians, economists, and data analysts whose books I’ve also read in the past few years and with whom I’ve had extensive conversations.

Being an optimist doesn’t mean that a leader walks around with perennially rose-colored glasses, oblivious to the threats and problems facing their industry, company or country. A modern optimist sees the world in perspective, expresses gratitude for the progress we’ve made and, by doing so, “believes the world can be much, much better than it is today,” according to Pinker.


MCF Intersection

A regular snapshot of the trends, news and research in the world of philanthropy — and its impact on business.


Warren Buffett’s Optimism Led to His Success

It’s hard to dispute that great leaders are nearly all optimists, and they want us to know. Bill and Melinda Gates began their 2018 Gates Foundation Annual Letter by stating, “We are outspoken about our optimism. These days, though, optimism seems to be in short supply.” In a public letteraddressed to their friend, Warren Buffett, Melinda Gates said the billionaire owes his success to his optimistic outlook. And it, in turn, inspired the Gates to see the world differently. In the letter, “How Warren Taught Us Optimism,” Melinda writes: 

“He has one quality that fuels all the others: Warren is the most upbeat, optimistic person we know. He's optimistic about the country, about the future and about you. No matter where things are right now, he knows in the long run they're getting better…Warren's success didn't create his optimism; his optimism led to his success.”

Optimism, says Melinda Gates, isn’t a belief that things will get better on their own. Rather, it’s a conviction that we can make things better. This attitude applies to starting a company, building a business, or leading an organization.

Transformative Leaders Are More Optimistic Than Average

Since Steven Pinker knows Bill and Melinda very well, I asked the famed Harvard professor a key question:

What is the connection between optimism and transformational leadership?

“Because most people are pessimistic about the world, the optimist has a competitive advantage,” Steven Pinker says.

"They take advantage of opportunities others might not take. There are so many things that can go wrong in anything you do. The odds are really stacked against us. There must be some degree of optimism to embark on a project that has a chance of failure. If you don’t have a sense that the gamble you’re taking will pay off, you won’t have the gumption to try it in the first place.”

Pinker’s answer partly explains why my books and articles are full of heroes, champions, pioneers and mavericks. A pessimist might not take advantage of opportunities and embark on projects with a high chance of failure. By definition, then, they won’t reach leadership positions that inspire the rest of us.

As a student of optimism, I can tell you that a mountain of groundbreaking research in the areas of psychology, persuasion, achievement, motivation, and cognition are reaching a stunning conclusion: We perform our best when we’re positive. Optimism fuels achievement. Studies have shown that optimistic students do better on tests, optimistic salespeople make more sales, optimistic job candidates are more likely to get hired, and optimistic company leaders enjoy higher employee engagement, less turnover, and stronger growth. Optimism is your competitive edge in a hyper competitive global economy.

Build Your Optimism Muscles

Here’s the best part. We can rewire our brains to be more optimistic. From keeping a gratitude journal to mentally reframing the events that happen in your life, psychologists are finding that changing how you see things changes what you see.

Pinker offers several suggestions for cultivating a more optimistic mindset. Among his recommendations: Keep your perspective. “Not everything that happened yesterday is a harbinger of the future,” he says. “Not every problem is a crisis, plague, epidemic, or existential threat…problems are inevitable; but problems are solvable.”

Many people in business today are content with mediocrity. But studying average professionals only provides a role model in how to get more of it. In no field is average good enough anymore. If you want to stand out and move the world forward, study the great ones—and the great ones are optimists.