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December 07, 2021

Leading with Optimism: The What, Why, and How

What is optimism?

Optimism is about seeing the possibility of a positive outcome in a situation and acting according to that possibility.

It’s a mindset – a lens that you can choose to look through, which then impacts how you see yourself, other people, and situations. Mindsets ultimately affect what we do, what we communicate, and how we lead.

Contrary to what you might think, optimism is something you can learn to cultivate. Even if you don’t consider yourself an optimistic person, you can intentionally practice taking on a more optimistic perspective.

For tips on how to practice mindset management, check out this video about taming your inner critic.

Why is leading with optimism important?

Being a leader often involves helping people move through change and challenge to arrive at a better future. To do this, leaders must motivate others to act amidst the discomfort or uncertainty of change — to be courageous, to take risks for the sake of achieving a goal or realizing a vision.

What motivates people to move into challenging situations? It has a lot to do with whether the outcome on the other side of the challenge feels both exciting and doable. How do you stir excitement and belief around a future vision? One way is with optimism.

Think about your own experience on teams – if a leader talks about goals with a sense of doubt or pessimism, do you feel motivated to work towards those goals and give it your all?

The benefits of leading with optimism:

Some of the benefits of optimistic leadership include…

  • Increased motivation, within self and others
  • More innovation and new ideas
  • Increased collaboration
  • A positive work culture
  • Lifted moods
  • Work that feels more exciting and fun

Can you be too optimistic? Balancing optimism with realism.

Like many leadership qualities, optimism is most effective when used in a balanced way. If you take it to the extreme – what we might call blind optimism – you’ll have a negative impact rather than a positive one.

Blind optimism is when you profess “we can do it” without acknowledging the challenges or risks involved. Your belief in the team can become so extreme that you either push them too hard (with unattainable goals) or don’t push them hard enough (by taking a hands-off approach).

This ineffective type of optimism causes you to seem out of touch with reality and the felt experience of your team. You’ll lose the trust and belief of others, and that’ll hurt the motivation anyone had to work towards the goals.

Instead, optimism is best expressed when attached to a healthy sense of realism and a good dose of empathy. It’s a tricky balance, but it can be achieved.

How to lead with optimism — the qualities optimistic leaders.

Optimistic leaders…

  • Envision a better future
  • Help others see the vision
  • Motivate others to act, without anxiety or fear
  • Empathize about struggles while still inspiring belief in the future
  • Be flexible to pivot as change happens
  • Brainstorm and problem-solve with the team
  • Make others feel appreciated
  • Bring out the best in others in the face of challenges

What does leading with optimism sound like?

Effective optimism might be expressed to your team in the following ways:

  • “We’ve got a challenge ahead of us, but I know this team can rise to it.”
  • “These goals are big, but this team has the talent to make it happen.”
  • “I can see us hitting the goal. It’s gonna take all of us rowing hard and in the same direction, but we can do it.”
  • “This is a challenge for sure. Let’s explore how we might solve it. What do you think is possible?”
  • “This will be tough. It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow in some exciting ways.”
  • “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but the outcome will be worth it.”
  • “I think we can do this if we all support each other. How can I help?”
  • “I know we’re gonna get there, due to your energy and efforts. Thank you!”


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