When Things Go From Bad to Worse: The Impact of Relative Contextual Extremity on Benjamin Montgomery's Positive Leadership and Psychological Capital

John E. Baur, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Jeffrey J. Haynie, Nicholls State University
M. Ronald Buckley, University of Oklahoma
Jennifer M. Palar, Augustana College
Milorad M. Novivevic, University of Mississippi
John H. Humphreys, Texas A&M–Commerce


Drawing from positive organizational behavior, psychological capital has been shown to be a beneficial resource allowing leaders to remain positive and future-oriented. While having hope, optimism, confidence, and resilience are particularly effective in periods of great risk and uncertainty, extreme environments likely affect leaders’ psychological capital, as evidenced by changes to these comprising factors. Answering several recent calls for historical and narrative-based approaches to leadership in extreme events, we use content analysis and historiometrics in the case of Benjamin Montgomery, the first African American plantation owner in the post–Civil War U.S. South, who faced a sequence of extreme events after purchasing the plantation on which he was formerly a slave. We triangulate our examination through the letters Montgomery penned to his former owner Joseph Davis—the older brother of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, records on the focal actors, and historical documents from the period. We then reconstruct and examine the relative contextual severity and its impact on Montgomery’s psychological capital across a 6-year period directly following the Civil War (1865-1870). We find that while unfamiliar extreme episodes erode leader psychological capital, those resources are restored when such periods are overcome and experience is gained. We also reconsider psychological capital as a profile multidimensional construct and show underlying pairs of dimensions, which we label as overt positivity (optimism and resilience) and realistic positivity (hope and confidence), trend similarly yet remain distinct from the other pair. The implications of these findings and future directions are then discussed.