Optimistic Expectations

We should never be satisfied with our leaders – Low expectations are antithetical to progress – Stasis is an illusion.

Picture a leader who extolls the powers of reason, rationality, compassion, and dialectic, who excites and fills people with optimism, exudes confidence and charisma, speaks the people’s language, makes promises of great things to come, who’s done work in the trenches, who you would trust with the world. When thinking about leaders we’re naturally drawn to presidents and prime ministers and other such leaders of great entities, so it’s likely Barack Obama came to mind. And rightly so.
But did Obama’s achievements match the expectations of the nation, or the world — expectations for which he was largely responsible for? Many think he didn’t — and disgracefully so. If indeed he didn’t, does it mean our models of what makes a good leader are woefully inaccurate? It’s not easy to come up with better properties than ‘good’, ‘inspiring’, ‘extremely well educated’, ‘a powerful orator’, ‘charismatic’, and the like, so if these boxes are ticked and expectations are unmet still, should we ditch our models in favour of something like… Trump? Or was Obama still a good president despite letting people down; and if he is, should better distinctions be made between expectations and models?
To some, the answer is simply that Obama was never going to be a good president: his failure was to be expected, presidency isn’t about smiles and smooth words, it’s no wonder someone like Trump took his place. To others, Obama will never be matched in greatness. These opinions come from mindsets antithetical to progress, and are therefore of no interest to me. What does interest me is conversation between parties that are interested in progress. Dissatisfied minorities will exist as long as there exists particular minorities in perpetual states of dissatisfaction— which is to say, always. The conversation that matters here is the one about the expectations of the majority. Just what should we make of a president who fails to meet these expectations?
A position I seldom here expressed is that leaders should never be satisfying the expectations of the majority — not during their reign, not after. It’s one that makes me either the target or killjoy of a conversation about politics. The upshot is this: over-delivery is a symptom of pessimistic expectations. ‘What’s wrong with pessimism?’, said every Danish person. What’s wrong is that it makes mediocrity acceptable. At every level of analysis, the state of stasis is an illusion: everything is falling apart and the only way we stay on top is by making constant progress. Hence, a society defined as technologically, economically — or by any other critical measure — mediocre, is actually a society on the decrease. A leader of pessimistic people doesn’t have to do much to outperform, which is another way of saying they will not do much. What we should want — what the world needs — is leaders who are underperforming relative to the expectations of followers.
If we have elected the right person, what a leader could do is aligned with what we want or could want1. Putting aside the disappointment, there is no obvious reason why we should not set our expectations as high as we can. We elect leaders to steer us forward, guide us through trouble, inspire us, provide insight, to do things the most people cannot; being a leader is hard. And it’s indirectly made harder by a majority of followers who have less-than-great expectations.
Expectation drives effort. When expectations are great, underperformance is less symptomatic of laziness, incompetence or lack of care, and more of failure despite great effort. The true reasons for underperformance can of course never be known — but one could say the same about all knowledge: nothing can be known with 100% certainty. We instead must do the best we can. This means wanting the best out our leaders, which means setting our expectations unrealistically high. These expectations perform three critical functions:
  • A filter: the great expectations are naturally discouraging to possible candidates for leadership who don’t have what it takes to either match or surpass them, or deal with the pressure of attempting.
  • It’s obvious when a leader is not fulfilling his/her duties. Cowardice, laziness, lack of care or ineptitude is impossible to hide.
  • It stretches the leader beyond their known capacities, which is critical given the nature of how humans develop skill and acquire new knowledge — namely with one foot in chaos.
It seems weird to pronounce expectations of great things with additional expectations ultimate disappointment as a message of optimism. But as ever, nuance matters. A world in which we repeatedly greaten our expectations and those expectations are set relative not to the ability of leaders but to the state of humanity is a world in which life continuously improves in every important measure. Given its achievability and granted the inverse is true, what could be more optimistic?


  1. A tyrannical regime is obviously different.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.