Management Articles


Leaders are Learned Optimists

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

"People often say that this or that person has not found himself. But the self is not something that one finds. It is something one creates."
    Thomas Szasz, 20th century American psychoanalyst who founded the 'anti-psychiatry'
Effective leaders are "unreasonable" optimists. Optimists refuse to live in "the real world." They live in a world of hope and possibilities. They see an opportunity in every calamity. The pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity. Optimists excite and arouse others to action by helping them see, believe in, and reach for what could be.

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If you haven't already read Learned Optimism, put it at the top of your reading list. Learned Optimism was written by Martin Seligman, professor of social science and director of clinical training in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In it, he reports on decades of pioneering research he and others have done on the effects of pessimism and optimism, ways to assess the degrees of either, and how to change a pessimistic style to an optimistic one. His work adds an important new twist and depth to understanding the timeless principles of leadership action.

He writes, "The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder."

At the core of Seligman's findings are the interconnected concepts of "learned helplessness" and "explanatory style." Seligman explains, "Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn't matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness."

He goes on to cite research that shows pessimism is a major cause of depression, inaction and inertia, worry, and much poorer physical health (including earlier death). He has also found "pessimism is self-fulfilling. Pessimists don't persist in the face of challenges, and therefore fail more frequently even when success is attainable... their explanatory style now converts the predicted setback into a disaster, and disaster into a catastrophe."

We can use Martin Seligman's ABCs to assess our explanatory style: any Adversity we encounter triggers our habitual Beliefs, which determines the Consequences of that situation or those circumstances. Learned Optimism has many useful assessment tools to help you understand whether you tend to pessimism or optimism and suggestions on how to become more optimistic.

To see beyond what is to what could be, we need to become "learned optimists." It starts by working with our teams or on our own to "reframe" negative situations and problems by looking for the improvement opportunities buried in them.

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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