Commentary: The importance of optimism in the workplace

If you look at the business environment today, you could make the argument that things are pretty tough.

The economy is sluggish. Reduced budgets are forcing government agencies to find ways to do more with less. Around the world, our industry and others are facing significant uncertainty about the future. This is a challenging environment in which to budget, forecast and plan strategically.

I’m often asked if I’m worried about the future. I’m not. In fact, I’m a determined optimist. It’s true that we have a difficult road ahead, one that will at times require making tough decisions. Yet I prefer to address the challenges of today, while focusing on the possibilities of tomorrow. I don’t allow myself to get bogged down in negativity, and neither should you. Just as leaders cannot lead from the rear, they cannot inspire from isolation — and pessimism and cynicism are isolating characteristics.

It’s crucial to address challenges with confidence, resolve and determination.

Understand that I’m not being naive. There are tough challenges facing our nation and our industry, both right in front of us and over the horizon. And I’m not suggesting that leaders should gloss over issues or ignore difficult situations. I am suggesting that the best way to lead through tough times is to face those challenges head-on.

Philosopher William James would have agreed. He said: “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.” Like James, I believe that determined optimism is a prescription for leadership in tough times. Because, really, what good does hand-wringing and worrying do? It’s a needless distraction that makes it more difficult to move forward.

Putting optimism to work

My commitment to determined optimism makes me grateful that I work with engineers. I’ve never met an engineer who believed that a problem — any problem — couldn’t be solved. Yet optimism isn’t reserved just for engineers. It works for anyone in any field. It just requires a steadfast belief that there’s an answer for every challenge.

Recently, I was reflecting on how this philosophy is playing a role in pushing innovations that will help overcome a global problem. For decades, the world’s brightest minds have been pursuing the promise of clean, abundant energy. A technology that we’ve been working on is Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion.

The potential of OTEC is enormous. OTEC uses the ocean’s natural thermal gradient to generate power. On an average day, 60 million square kilometers of tropical seas absorb an amount of solar radiation equivalent to the energy produced by approximately 250 billion barrels of oil. The temperature difference between deep and shallow ocean waters offers enormous potential for producing energy.

In the 1970s, we developed a mini OTEC plant. It ran for three months and successfully generated 50 kilowatts of electricity. Although we’ve made a lot of progress since then, it wasn’t without difficulty and disappointment along the way. However our optimistic outlook helped us stay focused on the potential of OTEC and kept us on track through the tough times. And it’s paid off. Recently, Lockheed Martin signed a contract with Reignwood Group to develop and build a 10-megawatt OTEC power plant. This plant will be the largest OTEC project developed to date.

Determined optimism can be a game changer. As an outlook on life, it works for me. And it can work for you too.

Ask yourself this: who would you rather work with — optimists who work hard toward a positive vision of what can be, or pessimists who shake their heads and ask what good will it do?

Giving in to cynicism and pessimism is self-fulfilling. When someone shakes their head and says: “It’s a great idea, it’s just not doable,” they’re right 100 percent of the time. It won’t get done.

So don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in negativity. Embrace the power of determined optimism honed with grit, tenacity and hard work. I’d welcome your thoughts on optimistic leaders who have guided your teams through tough challenges.

Marillyn Hewson is chairwoman and chief executive at Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin. This commentary originally appeared on her LinkedIn blog.

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