by David Collinson
26 August 2020
Share this article:
Positivity is widely seen as an important quality of effective leadership. Leaders who are upbeat and optimistic, it is argued, create “feel-good” communities inspiring creativity and innovation. Being positive can be empowering and in many ways is preferable to its opposite, but it can also become unrealistic, insincere, manipulative, and counterproductive. Some years ago, I drew on the metaphor of Prozac to highlight the limits of excessively positive thinking. “Prozac leadership” (Collinson, 2012) encourages leaders to believe their own rhetoric that everything is going well and discourages subordinates from raising problems or admitting mistakes. Voicing caution and criticism breaks the “positive spell.”
By silencing alternative voices and debate, Prozac leaders leave societies and organizations ill-prepared to deal with unexpected events and threats. Far from being motivational, excessive optimism undermines trust, communication, learning, and preparedness. In the years preceding the Great Financial crash of 2007-8, excessively positive thinking enabled a climate of reckless selling (of subprime mortgages) that openly discouraged critical thinking. Today, societies are facing an even greater existential threat, yet governments in major economies such as the UK and US continue to adopt Prozac leadership as their pandemic modus operandi.
Boris Johnson is the archetypal Prozac leader. Invariably seeking to look on the bright side, Johnson presents himself as a jovial spreader of positive cheer and optimism. As a politician for the good times, the pandemic has profoundly challenged him, even beyond the strain the virus has placed on his government and his own health.
As a boy, Donald Trump attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York where Norman Vincent Peale preached “The Power of Positive Thinking” – a key U.S. influence in the emergence of Prozac leadership. Although Peale’s ideas have been debunked, Trump cites Peale as a formative influence, and in his book, the Art of the Deal, Trump argues that “exaggerating the positive” is a “very effective form of promotion.”
The wishful thinking and wilful blindness of individual Prozac leaders can quickly contaminate management structures, cultures, and practices. In 2019, The Global Health Security Index rated the U.S. and the UK as the two best-prepared countries to deal with a pandemic, but by August, 3 2020, the US had recorded over 155,000 coronavirus deaths, and the UK had the highest excess deaths in Europe. While significant differences exist between them, both countries adopted excessively optimistic approaches, underestimating COVID-19, attempting to deny and dominate the virus, and to downplay science.
The wishful thinking and wilful blindness of individual Prozac leaders can quickly contaminate management structures, cultures, and practices.
Denying: In 2014, the US created The Global Health Security Unit to ensure an effective counter to pandemics. In 2018, President Trump disbanded the unit saying it was unnecessary. In January 2020, when the virus emerged in China and the WHO issued warnings, Trump insisted it was “a hoax.” In February, he stated the virus could be treated ‘like the flu’ and predicted by April “it will miraculously go away.”
Likewise, in the UK, clear recommendations from a pandemic simulation exercise (2016) were totally ignored, resulting in a significant lack of ventilators, PPE, and testing capability in 2020. As the virus arrived in the UK, the government convened its crisis group (COBRA) which sits in times of national emergencies. Failing to appreciate the imminent danger, Prime Minister Johnson did not attend the first five COBRA meetings. Both countries wasted valuable time, delayed lockdowns and quarantine, and many lives were unnecessarily lost.
Dominating: Prozac leadership is particularly evident in three countries where the virus has been especially severe to date (UK, US & Brazil). These countries are led by male Prozac leaders who define themselves as “strong men” and virile leaders. Articulating a hyper-optimistic discourse of male bravado, Johnson and Bolsonaro believed they were personally invulnerable to the virus. They ignored medical advice and both contracted COVID. After boasting about shaking the hands of COVID patients, Johnson nearly died. Whilst Trump continues to insist that the pandemic is “totally under control,” he has been forced to contradict earlier statements (e.g. mask wearing). In contrast, several governments led by women have been much more effective, exercising greater caution by locking down earlier (e.g. Ardern & Merkel).
Downplaying: Governments that have most closely followed the science have been the most successful in containing the virus (e.g. Vietnam, Taiwan) Viewing the pandemic as more of a political than a medical issue, Prozac leaders have disregarded scientific analysis. In the US tensions have emerged between the cautious approach of evidence-based scientific knowledge and politicians’ concerns to restart economies. The premature re-opening of commerce against medical advice (e.g. Texas, Florida, Arizona) has resulted in more spikes of the virus, necessitating the re-imposition of localized restrictions.
President Trump continues to advocate hydroxychloroquine despite research showing it has no impact on COVID-19. Previously, he suggested the virus could be eradicated by “very bright light” and “injecting strong disinfectant into the body”. Hospitals have been ordered to bypass the Center for Disease Control and send pandemic information directly to the government alarming public health experts who fear the data will be distorted for political gain. Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been marginalized and personally criticised for being “too negative” and “alarmist.” Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) demanded “more optimism” from Dr. Fauci and White House officials referred to Dr. Fauci as “Dr. Gloom and Doom.” All statements straight out of the Prozac playbook!
Although the UK government has consistently stated that it is “guided by science,” criticism has focussed on its chaotic, confused, and inconsistent response. This included a failure to protect elderly people in care homes, exemplified by a government instruction on March 19th to discharge “medically fit” hospital patients into care homes without testing or quarantine. Senior members of the government have also flouted lockdown rules significantly eroding trust in the government.
This pandemic has exposed the dangers of Prozac leaders’ attempts to redefine the narrative in excessively positive ways and has also demonstrated that Prozac leaders typically refuse to acknowledge mistakes. Their excessive positivity constitutes a significant barrier to critical reflection and learning. Unless and until Prozac leadership is rejected, leaders are likely to repeat the same mistakes, confirming the old aphorism “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The relative success of certain countries in managing the pandemic demonstrates that a different way to lead is possible and desirable. Effective leadership combines optimism with informed, critical thinking, positivity with a willingness to confront difficult realities, and an upbeat vision with a capacity to listen to alternative voices. This approach to leadership eschews false positives.
Collinson DL (2012) Prozac leadership and the limits of positive thinking. Leadership 8(2): 87–107.
David Collinson is Distinguished Professor of Leadership & Organization at Lancaster University. He is Founding Co-Editor of the journal Leadership and Founding Co-Organizer of The International Studying Leadership Conference. Previously at the Universities of Manchester, Warwick, St Andrews and South Florida, David’s recent publications focus on critical approaches to leadership studies, including: leadership & followership dialectics; power, identities and insecurities; gender, men & masculinities; conformity, dramaturgy & resistance; and humour, positivity and Prozac leadership. David is a member of the ILA and a past Chair of the ILA Legacy Committee.