What can we Learn from Leading with Optimism?

What is optimism? According to Seth Godin – author, entrepreneur and teacher, it is both an attitude and a choice that involves context and focus.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Simon Sinek speak as part of a Virgin Set Up Zoom presentation. One theme Sinek repeatedly brought up throughout the conversation was the importance of leading with optimism, especially during uncertain times. His thoughts around this concept and why it is such a critical leadership pillar really resonated with me so I’d like to share some key takeaways with you as well as some of my personal experiences around demonstrating optimism in the workplace.

When I think back to my experience as a school leader, demonstrating optimism was really important, especially when leadership was challenging. Most of the time, I think I was intentional about this. How could I expect others to be optimistic if I wasn’t? I found that when l did lead with optimism, it was infectious and my team would start replicating this behaviour and mindset. The result was energising and impactful.

Leadership experts like Sinek and Godin firmly advocate that even in challenging circumstances, you can still lead with optimism, and in doing so you are setting your team up for success, ensuring they remain resilient and connected during uncertainty and can weather the storm.

Let’s use COVID as an example. There are numerous ways leaders and organisations have continued to successfully navigate their way through this pandemic. Optimistic leaders will quite openly admit that this climate has been really difficult and will be open about the struggles they have experienced at different stages and how vulnerable they have felt navigating this new and ambiguous scenario. There was no textbook to consult on how to manage this curve ball! However, over time their optimism supported them to regroup, refocus, develop (and refine) strategies and approaches to move forward.

Optimistic leaders tend to be planners, creators and problem solvers. They demonstrate a commitment to finding things they can contribute to, work on and improve in. This is certainly the case for the leaders I have supported over the last two years. Most have admitted that they have had no idea how things should be evolving but they know that they have an amazing team around them and they will continue to collaborate to work things out – that’s optimism in play.

Is optimism different to positivity? According to Sinek, it is. He states that positivity is blind. By this, he means that often we can perceive things to be ‘fine’ or ‘good’ but this mindset is not necessarily helpful or true. I’m sure you have come across people who give you the impression that they are often on top of things but deep down they’re often not – maybe you have even been there yourself - I know I have.

So can optimism be developed? I think it can. Over the years I have worked alongside some incredible leaders who have taught me the importance of dealing with the challenge and focusing on the learning that can occur along the way. One particular leader that stands out in this space is Denise Torrey, the current tumuaki at Somerfield Te Kura Wairepo in Ōtautahi.

I was part of Denise’s leadership team during the Canterbury Earthquakes back in 2010. She not only had the incredible skill of being able to bring a school community together to acknowledge and accept the challenges, but also to give stakeholders certainty that we would get through this natural disaster together. I learnt so much from Denise during this time about optimism and the importance of not only focusing on the now but also on the future.

What are some improvement strategies leaders can use to develop a more optimistic way of working and living?
  1. Embrace challenges as a reason to learn. Yes, we are experiencing uncertainty as a result of COVID but…
  2. Be a role model, demonstrating optimism regularly. Optimism can be addictive!
  3. Surround yourself with optimistic people. Listen to others and learn from their experiences.
  4. Be a teacher by working with your team to develop skills around being optimistic and dealing with challenges and uncertainty.
  5. Recall and journal examples when you have led with optimism and the outcome and impact this has had on your team.
  6. Keep things in perspective. Just because you had a challenging day yesterday, it doesn’t mean that today will be the same.
  7. Look at challenges that emerge as opportunities to learn and grow as a leader and as a team.
  8. Keep returning to your organisation’s vision. This will allow your team to refocus on what is important. It will also give them certainty and hope around the future.
  9. If you develop a system or practice that has the ability to improve the lives of others, share it with those who will benefit from it.
  10. When you are struggling to remain optimistic, talk to trusted people. Remember you can’t feal with the darkness alone.

Leading with optimism has a huge impact on an organisation. Optimistic leaders give teams hope for the future while at the same time keeping things genuine and real. This leadership skill is much needed, especially given the current world climate.

“Optimism is not denial of the current state. Optimism is the belief that the future is bright.”
Simon Sinek

Authored by Sean Bailey, one of our leadership coaches.

If you would like some help with leading with optimism, contact Kyran or Nicky on info@odi.org.nz or 03 943 2373.