Eyes on the prize: Why optimists make superb leaders

Recognizing the opportunity the future holds can help you better manage the challenges to come.

MICHIO KAKU: Leadership is understanding the challenges of the future, to working on scenarios of the future.

Now, President Eisenhower, when he was a general, he was asked about his attitude toward victory, toward fights, and toward war. And he basically said that pessimists never win wars. Only optimists win wars. And optimists, what separates them from the pessimists?

You see, the optimists see the future, the bright side of the future, the future that has opportunities, not the pessimist, who simply says, ah, can't do it, not possible, end of story. That's it, folks. So you have to have not just optimism, but you have to have one eye on the future.

Now, I'm a physicist. For me seeing the future is-- a large chunk of it is understanding the laws of science. When I was a kid, when I was a child, I had two role models. First was Einstein. I read that he couldn't finish his greatest work. And as a child, I said to myself, I'm going to help finish it. I'm going to help finish it, because it's the fundamentals of physics.

But the other role model I had was, well, I used to watch Flash Gordon on TV every Saturday morning. And he blew my mind away-- ray guns, cities in the sky, invisibility shields, monsters from outer space. And then I began to realize that the two loves of my life were actually the same thing, that if you want to understand the future, you have to understand science. You've got to pay your dues.

That's where leadership will take you, because you can see the future. That's what Eisenhower could do. He could see the future of a war, because he understood the mechanics of the war and how the war would progress. Seeing the future is the key to success in life. I think it's the key to intelligence. And it's also the key to leadership, as well.

Now, you may say to yourself, now, wait a minute. I thought IQs were a good predictor of the future. Wrong. If you take a look at people with high IQs, yes, some of them do win the Nobel Prize. But a lot of them wind up as marginal people, petty criminals, people that are failures. And then you wonder, why? Why is it that some people with high IQs never get anywhere?

Well, the Air Force had this problem. You see, the Air Force devised a test. What happens if your airplane is shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam, and you're captured by the Vietnamese? Do something. What are you going to do? It turns out that the people with high IQs got paralyzed, flummoxed. They didn't know what to do. They were paralyzed. What? You're captured behind enemy lines? What are you going to do? Give up?

The people who came up with the most imaginative, the most creative ideas, they were the ones who did not score so high on the IQ exam, but they were creative. They saw the future. They came up with all sorts of schemes in which to escape.

Now, I like to think of it this way. Let's say you've got a bunch of people, kids, and you ask them to rob a bank. That's your job, rob a bank. How would you do it? I think the people with high IQs would get all embarrassed, flummoxed. They wouldn't know what to do. Even people who want to become policemen of the future, they would get all flummoxed. But criminals, they are constantly thinking about the future-- master criminals now, not the ones who are petty and just steal things off the grocery shelf.

But the master criminals are the ones who constantly simulate the future. How do you rob this bank? How do you nail down the police? How do you get away? Where's your getaway car? These are the ones who have high intelligence. These are, quote, the "future leaders."

  • Effective leadership comes from, in part, an understanding of the challenges the future might hold.
  • Because optimists are able to focus the opportunities the future presents — instead of the impossibilities — they make great leaders.
  • An understanding of science plays a part in more clearly seeing the future, which contributes to better decision-making as a leader.
Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

Keep reading Show less

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask.

The future of learning will be different, and now is the time to lay the groundwork.

Future of Learning
  • The coronavirus pandemic has left many at an interesting crossroads in terms of mapping out the future of their respective fields and industries. For schools, that may mean a total shift not only in how educators teach, but what they teach.
  • One important strategy moving forward, thought leader Caroline Hill says, is to push back against the idea that getting ahead is more important than getting along. "The opportunity that education has in this moment to really push students and think about what is the right way to live, how do we do it and how do we do it in a way that doesn't hurt or rob the dignity of other people?"
  • Hill also argues that now is the time for bigger swings and for removing the barriers that limit education. The online space is boundary free and provides educators with new opportunities to connect with students around the world.

Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

Here are 3 things white people can do right now to help #BLM

Remaining silent is being complicit.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
  • Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
  • Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
Keep reading Show less