Learned Optimism
by Martin Seligman

ISBN: 978-1400078394, Publisher: Vintage
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*


Some boards will be facing this crisis with an optimistic opportunism that is alert for every possible advantage; others will be facing the same circumstances with pessimism and a focus on minimising losses. The former will emerge poised for growth; the latter may survive. But what makes boards react in such different ways?

Martin Seligman, a well respected psychologist with a body of clinical research as well as two best-selling books, suggests that the difference may be in the way in which boards and their individual members view the world. In Learned Optimism Seligman gives a well balanced explanation of how certain outlooks relate to success or failure and other issues such as quality of life and relationships, health and longevity. Although the book is written about individuals it is easy to extrapolate the ideas to groups. Every professional director will be aware of how each board develops its own character. Seligman's work shows how character traits affect the likelihood of success.

Seligman divides people into two broad categories (or places them along one continuum) depending on their level of optimism or pessimism. Optimists believe that defeat or set backs are temporary and can be recovered from; pessimists believe that defeats or set backs are permanent, personally directed at them, and pervasive, affecting all aspects of their existence rather than just the one that is currently adversely affected.

The discussion of indicators (especially figures of speech and verbal patterns) is clear enough to allow readers to make their own diagnoses of themselves and their board colleagues. The most reliable indicator is 'explanatory style', the way in which our self-talk explains why things have happened and builds our expectations for the future. Too many boards have a poor explanatory style that does not motivate board members or management to recover from set-backs or seek opportunity in adversity.

Seligman's work is underpinned by extensive research which validates the classifications and their indicators. Moving beyond accurate diagnosis the work extends into methods for changing from your current mode of talking and thinking to a mode that is more likely to leave you more open to possibilities for success. There are some excellent exercises and models that can be used to make and consolidate changes.

I first read this book eight years ago. In Switzerland last July I discovered a consulting firm that applies Seligman's methods to the workplace and appears to achieve measurable increases in corporate performance. This motivated me to reread the book and think about using some of the concepts to improve the outcomes of my boards. The power of reasoned speech should allow boards, as well as individual directors, to take charge of situations, resist depression, avoid 'learned helplessness', feel more confident and achieve better outcomes.

There are many books based upon Seligman's work that purport to extend his work into the corporate arena. None of these, however, offer the clarity of thought of Seligman's original. I recommend directors who are interested in building resilience to read this book before they read any of the others, or to just read it instead of the others!

*Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director and board consultant. She is an Australian Institute of Company Directors NSW Councillor. She is the author of "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and a mentor to aspiring and practicing company directors. Her newsletter 'The Director's Dilemma' is available at www.mclellan.com.au/newsletter.html

Julie Garland McLellan to judge 2011 Global eBook Awards