Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Perfect Time to Be Optimistic

It's a new month ... but old fears linger. Some economic indicators appear to have touched bottom over the summer, hinting that the nightmare of the Great Recession may be ending. Still, many people — senior executives, as well — are haunted over whether a prosperous future can be regained.

Donald Keough (pictured) is just the guy to turn to for an uplift in these fearful times. This corporate leader wrote a book last year called The Ten Commandments of Business Failure [Portfolio]. Keough is a longtime Coca-Cola executive who, upon retiring from the beverage company in 1993 as president and COO, became nonexecutive chairman of Allen & Co., the investment banking firm (and still sits on the Coca-Cola board).

Here is one of his commandments of failure: Be Afraid of the Future.

"To aspire to any kind of leadership in business you simply have to be an optimist," Keough writes. "One optimist in a sea of pessimists can make all the difference." What all great leaders, in politics and business, have is "the ability to sense a mood," he says. "They know what the prevailing mood is and, when it is negative, they sense how to change it."

That's what Keough did in another "bleak year" in our nation's history — 1974. "What a time!" he writes in his book. "President Nixon was named a co-conspirator in the infamous Watergate case and resigned in disgrace. The Mideast oil-producing countries embargoed oil shipments to the United States. Gas shortages popped up all over the country. There were bloody IRA terrorism attacks in Belfast and London, even at Harrods department store. We had our own homegrown terrorism, such as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by some group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. India developed the atomic bomb. And we were still trying to pull out of the Vietnam War. In short, it was not a good time for America."

But ... "Therefore, it was a perfect time for Coca-Cola to be optimistic."

The company rolled out a new advertising campaign that aspired to help raise the sagging spirits of the country. That theme became Look Up, America. The "wonderfully uplifting series of commercials," Keough says, triggered a huge response, demonstrating how "Coca-Cola had an ability, in a small way, to influence the national mood."

As the economy tries ever so grindingly to leave the bleakness of the Great Recession behind, let's follow Keough's example. Let's not fear the future. Even better, let's be the valiant optimist, and try to find a way, even if it's a small way, that we can contribute to raising the spirits of those around us and, perhaps, even help influence the national mood.

Surely that is something that directors can bring into their board meetings with the CEO and management teams. Be a leader. Be optimistic. It's the perfect time.