Psychologists say that pessimism takes root in times of stress. And we are swimming in a river of stress. I know because as companies are awakening to the need to grow instead of just survive, they are asking me to help change their mind-set. You see we’ve become a culture of pessimism, and pessimists don’t come up with creative ideas that create new value. For the past 20 years American business has been obsessed with efficiency and productivity. Do more with less. Root out waste. Work harder. Work longer. Avoid risk. Benchmark. Do what everyone else is doing only do it better. Become world-class at blah. It is leadership without imagination. And it is everywhere.

It is also completely out of gas as a business strategy.

Striving for super efficiency seems smart if your goal is to avoid risk. It’s a problem however when trying to avoid risk is the highest risk you can take. Think of it this way. Microsoft has become a big lumbering bureaucracy seemingly capable of only making me-too products. Years after more innovative companies have blazed a new trail and taken consumers by storm, the best Microsoft innovations are Bing, Zune, and new versions of Windows.

But these are second tier products next to Google, iPods, and cloud based software. But why try to copy someone else’s bright idea? The world doesn’t need another fake Rolex even if you can make some money selling them. For years the business world had a bad case of Apple envy. Apple just kept cranking out I-wish-I-thought-of-that products that seemed to ignite vast amounts of consumer lust for anything with a half-eaten Apple logo on it. Under Steve Jobs Apple had a swagger of optimism.

And it produced a stream of game changing innovations. When Steve passed I saw leaders try to mimic what they thought he would do. They picked up their megaphones, yelling at their sweaty palmed boat rowers, “Innovate, dammit, innovate!”

But telling people to be creative doesn’t produce creativity. Only purpose does. 

Yes, I said it takes purpose to generate positive innovation. It is driven by the confidence that your creative response to reality will optimize the future. Instead of wishing, it is doing. It requires intense focus on reality. But unlike pessimism it doesn’t seek to eliminate risk. It seeks to make a difference that matters. This is a whole new skill set for leaders who have become addicted to saving money instead of investing it.

It’s a prime reason why our economy is stuck.

It explains why corporate treasuries are overflowing with trillions of unused capital. Leaders are wary. For the past several years most companies have struggled to keep profitable rather than grow.  But leading for profitability is a “solved problem.” It takes no imagination to shrink costs faster than sales, just ask H-P.

What I see are fear-driven leaders that are too scared to imagine innovation and too tired to deal with complexity.

It’s easier to just drive their old business model with less people and fewer expenses. I call it fake productivity. It’s crazy. We live in an age where we all know that with growth comes innovation executed with speed and agility, and yet most of our global enterprises are tangled in risk adverse bureaucracy leading to decision constipation and employee exhaustion. The antidote of this slow motion leadership is not to grow by buying and destroying valuable acquisitions but to reignite internal talent to create new value propositions, attract new customers, and solve problems people care about. It means re-designing business structures as hives of entrepreneurship.

It means growing cultures of optimism — agile, adaptive cultures capable of rapidly testing, learning and scaling success.

How? We we must personally take charge of our inner voice of purpose.

We must seek future – changing opportunities to create sustainable abundance instead of waiting for the world to change.

And we must edit the pessimistic voices that scare us into being small. It is a time to be bold. If Tesla, an electric car company, can launch in the recession, if TOMS shoes’ can sell 10,000,000 shoes so they can give away 10,000,000 shoes… hell, if Costco can pay their average employee $40,000 a year… anything is possible. The time to shake our fists, mutter and complain about dumbness and greed has long past.

It’s time to take some risks to create work and enterprises that help create the best future we can imagine.