What One Successful Leader Learned About Optimism From Failure

The story of one iconic leader's struggle with life changing failure reveals an important lesson of the value of optimism in leadership.

If you spend any time on social media or even just watching the news, it seems there’s not much to be optimistic about in terms of what’s going on around us. And that lack of optimism in the public sphere can have a tangible impact on our work lives and with it, our productivity and ability to achieve our goals.

In terms of leadership, optimism at times can suffer a bad rap as leaders are often encouraged to instead be positive with a firm dose of realism to keep them grounded. Invariably, this is because we tend to think of optimism in terms of putting perceptual blinders on, where we only see the good and ignore the bad. Of looking through rose-coloured glasses as a way to avoid dealing with any of the problems or issues around us.

To be sure, optimism is not something that we should be thinking about in terms of our leadership only when times are good; that it’s something that’s nice to have, but not necessary for us to do our job effectively in terms of guiding our team forward.

More importantly, we need to recognize that being optimistic is not a sign of weakness or being out of touch with reality. On the contrary, optimism in leadership is about not letting setbacks and failures hold you back from achieving your goals [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

What this means is that we recognize that our failures are moments of discovery and learning, and not something that defines who we are or what we’re capable of [Twitter logoShare on Twitter]. And one of my favourite stories that brings this point to life comes from a leader whose work we’re all familiar with, Walt Disney

In its early days, Walt Disney’s company was far from the multimedia juggernaut it is today. In fact, Disney’s studio was losing so much money that Walt had to sleep on the floor of his studio and take showers at the train station because he had no money to pay his rent.

Then in 1927, Walt caught his first real break when he created the animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which helped turn around his studio’s fortunes and allowed him to hire more animators to work at his studio.

In the spring of 1928, Walt travelled to New York City to meet with his producer, Charles Mintz, to negotiate an increase in his budget. What Mintz offered Walt instead was a 20% cut in his budget. He also used this meeting to tell Walt that he had signed most of his animators to join Mintz’s studio. Adding insult to injury, Mintz also told Walt that he, not Walt, owned the copyright for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Angered by the betrayal of both his producer Mintz and his animators, Walt refused the deal and got on a train to head back to Los Angeles.

Despite the loss of both his creation and a proven cash cow, Walt was determined to not to give up. On the train ride back home, Walt decided he was going to create a new character, one that he would make sure he retained ownership of. When he got back, he worked with animator Ub Iwerks to create a new character for their studio.

Together, they came up with a new character called Mortimer. When Walt showed his new character to his wife Lilli, she really liked it, except for the name. Lilli suggested that they instead call the character Mickey Mouse.

I love sharing this story in some of my talks on leadership because there are so many lessons we can unpack from this successful leader’s experience with life-changing failure, especially when we realize how Walt didn’t know at the time how this unfortunate turn of events would lead him to become an iconic and beloved creator, entertainer, and leader.

But in the context of optimism in leadership, Walt’s story reveals a powerful lesson of the importance of optimism to our ability to succeed as leaders. Namely, that optimism in leadership revolves around a fierce commitment to a vision that builds and improves upon the way things are today [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

Remember, at this point in his life, Walt had gone from the leader of a struggling animation studio to a successful and profitable one. And now, he was faced with the prospect of literally having to start all over and try to re-create the success he had found with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

In today’s world, when faced with that kind of failure, the typical reaction is to simply dissolve the company and move on to some other venture. But Walt believed in his vision of what animation could be, and that optimism he had for what they could create and become is no doubt why some of his employees like Iwerks decided to stick with him, instead of opting for a sure thing in signing up with Mintz’s studio.

Years later, Walt Disney speaking of his experiences growing his studio and creating Disneyland said “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

And this is exactly why optimism in our leadership is so necessary – optimism stirs within us this infectious belief of a future where we can become that better version of who we can be [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

Again, as we saw with Walt’s example, optimism is not about turning a blind eye to reality around you. Rather, it’s about being unrelentless in our drive to not let the setbacks of today deter us from fulfilling that brighter, hopeful vision of a future where we can not only achieve our goals, but succeed and thrive through our collective efforts.

And if Walt was able to find that in a drawing of a mouse, then there’s hope for all of us to discover that wellspring of optimism in ourselves as well.

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