Optimizing Your Optimism: Lessons from the Man Who Inspired Churchill

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I once thought Winston Churchill was the most inspiring politician of the 20th Century.

No longer.

Nothing against Churchill. He was a leader for the ages. It’s just that I learned Churchill had his own “go to” guy for inspiration – a man so optimistic that Churchill was energized just by being around him.

The man, of course, was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And he has my vote for most inspiring politician of the 20th Century.


President Franklin Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill at Casablanca

President Franklin Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill at Casablanca (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)


Sure, I’ve always known Roosevelt was a great leader. But I had no idea how dynamic he was until I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. For example, here’s how Goodwin describes Churchill’s impressions of FDR:

Churchill once said that to encounter Franklin Roosevelt, with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescent personality, and his inner élan was like opening your first bottle of champagne. Roosevelt genuinely liked people, he enjoyed taking responsibility, and he adored being president.

At another point Churchill put it in even more strongly:

“If anything happened to that man, I couldn’t stand it. He is the truest friend; he has the farthest vision; he is the greatest man I have ever known.”

That’s inspirational leadership.

Franklin Roosevelt was a powerful speaker, a brilliant politician, and a deeply strategic thinker. But above all, he was an incredible optimist with a genius for transmitting his “can do” attitude to those he led, even during crises such as the Great Depression and World War II.

Writes Goodwin:

Frances Perkins claimed that “his capacity to inspire and encourage those around him to do tough, confused and practically impossible jobs was without dispute.” Like everyone else, she said, she “came away from an interview with the president feeling better not because he had solved any problems,” but because he had somehow made her feel more cheerful, more determined, stronger than she had felt when she went into the room. “I have never known a man who gave one a greater sense of security,” Eleanor [Roosevelt] said. “I never heard him say there was a problem that he thought it was impossible for human beings to solve.”

Projecting a Powerful Optimism

We can all grow in our capacity to project optimism. Whether you’re CEO, a middle manager, a salesperson, a parent or friend, you can help others feel more cheerful, more determined and much stronger.

I wish I knew all Roosevelt’s secrets. But if we go back to his first inaugural address, we can tease out some of his techniques.

1. Spread Cheer by Giving Others Hope

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”

Daniel Goleman puts it well: emotions are contagious. We’re wired to respond to the emotions of others – and they’re wired to respond to ours. No one projected cheerfulness better than Roosevelt. In his first words as president, Roosevelt calmed nerves, inspired confidence and gave people hope. He got people to believe because he believed in them.

2. Foster Determination by Facing and Reframing Reality

I’ve heard the “only thing we have to fear” line more times than I can remember. But until I read the full text of the speech I had no idea of what followed: “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”

Like all great leaders, Roosevelt was never in denial. He faced reality head on.

And then he reframed it: “These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

Denial doesn’t foster determination. People get – and stay – focused when they have a sense of mission.

3. Enable Others to Grow Stronger by Helping Them Help Themselves

Finally, Roosevelt believed that people grow stronger when they are able to do things for themselves. “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.”

This is a great lesson for leaders. We don’t make our team members stronger by doing their work for them. They grow stronger when we coach them to solve their own problems.

Optimize Your Optimism

As you can see, optimism isn’t denial. It’s not pretending things are better than they are. Instead, optimistic leaders like Franklin Roosevelt face problems head on. They just do so in a way that makes others feel more cheerful, more determined and stronger.

You can do the same.

Question: How do you make others feels more optimistic?

6 Responses

  1. Mary Sweeney
    | Reply


    • Lance
      | Reply

      Thanks, Mary. Wish we had more leaders like FDR!

  2. Joey
    | Reply

    Very nice, Lance! And you are the embodiment of optimism every single day.

    • Lance
      | Reply

      Thanks, Joey. I try. Have a long way to go to reach FDR levels.

  3. Brad
    | Reply

    Very well said! Great piece Lance!

    • Lance
      | Reply

      Thanks a lot, Brad. Appreciate the kind words.

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