We can smell optimism. It defines winners! Each of us remembers classic sports events that highlighted stunning victories by underdogs who were optimistic. We recall the spirit of optimism in Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz as he predicted before the 1972 Olympics his take of seven gold medals, or the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that defeated the seemingly indomitable Soviet squad. For Spitz and the hockey champions there was an expectation of victory and an optimistic view of the outcome!

 

Conversely, a lack of optimism can defeat any individual or group effort. Students who enter an exam room expecting to fail fail. The bottom line is that if one expects to do their best, they can achieve it. If one expects the worst, on the other hand, failure becomes a reality. 

 

In 1988, when I served as Commander, Submarine Squadron Sixteen, I reviewed the performance of two submarine crews on their annual reactor safeguard inspections. The squadron consisted of a submarine tender, a floating dry dock, and thirteen nuclear ballistic missile submarines and their blue and gold crews.

 

It occurred to me to compare the two crews’ exam performance when I realized there were many similarities between the crews. The two skippers had been in command about the same length of time and the two crews’ performances—operationally and on examinations—were about equal for the previous two years.

 

I rode both ships for their two-day operational and administrative reactor exams. At the conclusion of each exam, the examining board team briefed the commanding officer, key personnel on the submarine, and me. 

One submarine received an overall grade of excellent; the other received an overall grade of average (but nearly above average).

I was able to compare the final examination reports side-by-side several months later when they arrived. Fortunately I had retained my personal trip reports for the two underway periods.

 

My review resulted in a “blinding flash of the obvious.” On paper, the two submarine crews’ administrative and operational competence was comparable, but the spirit and optimism of the crew and wardroom of the submarine that scored “excellent” had led the evaluators to grade up or give the benefit of the doubt to that crew on all close calls.

 

Regarding the “excellent” crew, my own notes stated, “This entire crew acts as if they have a personal stake in the outcome of the exam.” The senior inspector commented that he and his team had never been treated so well by an entire crew and that the non-nuclear-trained crew members were as engaged in the exam as the nuclear-trained personnel.

 

This comparison demonstrated to me what a team can do when there is an across-the-board expectation of success by an entire group. The crew that scored excellent on the exam was “all in” and they knew that they owned their success. For the two days of that examination not one member of the crew was a spectator.

 

Some say that optimism is a personality trait, and there is probably some truth in this statement. We, as leaders, on the other hand, must always have a vision of success. This requires many positive bursts of energy and constant motivation and inspiration to energize our people, not by pushing them, but by satisfying their needs for achievement.

 

 We must provide a sense of belonging in our team members and promote a feel of control over themselves and their destinies.

 

It is wise for individuals and groups to work toward an optimistic view of life and to expect many more victories than failures. A positive attitude is a key ingredient to every success. Each individual needs to realize that winning is important. Life is not a scrimmage and it is not a spectator sport. Success begins with a pervasive positive outlook.

 The “smell” of optimism will be apparent within the group and to all external observers. Such optimism is definable in any winning team or individual!


Vice Admiral Konetzni , known as “Big Al, the Sailor’s Pal,” served as the deputy and chief of staff to the Commander, Fleet Forces Command, before retiring from the Navy in 2004. Prior to Fleet Forces, he was the Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. In 2016, he retired as vice president and general manager of Oceaneering International Inc.’s Advanced Technologies Marine Services Division.

Editor’s Note : This is part seven of a ten-part series on behaviors that Vice Admiral Konetzni learned during his years of service. They apply to individuals and define superb organizations. Admiral Konetzni believes these ten behaviors can give people energy to thrive and overcome obstacles. For the rest of the series by Admiral Konetzni, click here. Part 1: Self Image . Part 2: Self Motivation . Part 3: Self Projection . Part 4: Self Control . Part 5: Self Discipline . Part 6: Self Esteem . ^