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The triumph of hard-eyed optimism

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in Leaders & Managers

On the one hand, optimism is the fuel that drives leaders. On the other hand, too much optimism leads to the implosion of big undertakings.

The answer is what John W. Gardner calls “tough-minded optimism.”

“Leaders must instill in their people a hard-bitten morale that mixes our natural American optimism with a measure of realism,” wrote the late founder of Common Cause. “To sustain hope, one need not blind oneself to reality.”

That certainly was the case for Blackhawk helicopter pilot Mike Durant. Shot down, seriously wounded and jailed in Somalia, he fervently hoped to see his wife and young son again.

During his captivity, Durant kept hearing about efforts to secure his release, from radio broadcasts to amplified blasts from passing U.S.helicopters: “Mike Durant: We will not leave without you!”

But Durant also seethed with anger: at the Somali mob that beat him with the arm of a dead comrade; at his captor, a warlord who had hijacked United Nations food shipments intended for his own people; and at President Clinton, who hadn’t provided enough military support.

So, Durant certainly was hard-bitten,but he also remained optimistic. He peppered his internal commentary with acerbic remarks and commands to keep himself under control. He laced his external banter with simple humor and hope. After 11 days, Durant finally received a shot of morphine, was shoved into a van and jostled through Mogadishu to the U.N. compound. A passing JAG officer at the compound opened the van doors, and Durant says he was never so happy to see a lawyer.

Durant wanted to regain his flight status, so he started training for the Marine Corps Marathon with five goals: 1. Finish the race. 2. Beat Oprah Winfrey’s time. 3. Beat his own 1992 time. 4. Beat his battalion commander’s time. 5. Qualify for the Boston Marathon.

He ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 1995, missed only his fifth goal and did fly helicopters again, sitting next to the man who had promised from the sky not to leave him.

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