How Leaders Know When to Be an Optimist, Realist or Pessimist

As a leader, are you supposed to be an optimist, a pessimist, an idealist or a realist?

The answer is “yes.”

The key is knowing when to be which.

This is not about being inauthentic.

The reality is, in some circumstances a leader must be a grim-faced pessimist, while in others it requires being a cheery-faced optimist.

How do you know? Here’s a basic guideline to help you navigate this.

1. A leader must be a pessimist when …

… making financial forecasts in a challenging season.

When the financial fortunes of the organization are at stake, it’s time for the leader to put on the demeanor of a pessimist.

Perhaps a better word than pessimistic is “cautious.” Any leader who has led a turnaround will tell you that the first step is to stop the bleeding by taking a worst-case scenario approach to budgeting.

2. A leader must be a realist when …

… developing the team.

A leader must not only be committed to the development of the team, the leader must also be ruthlessly realistic when it comes to the potential of each team member.

Nothing will crush the spirit of a rising leader quite like giving them too much responsibility too soon. Instead, effective leaders must be realistic when it comes to each one’s potential, and then design their development plan accordingly.

3. A leader must be an idealist when …

… casting vision.

Ideals have gone out of fashion in our culture. But effective leaders must embrace the ideals of their organization’s mission and vision and describe them with authentic passion.

Why does the organization exist? What difference will it make in the world? These are the organization’s ideals, and the leader must espouse them eloquently and proudly.

4. A leader must be an optimist when …

… building a healthy culture.

When the going gets hard, the team wants to know essentially one thing: “Is all of this work worth it?”

The leader’s job is to remind the team that, together under God, things are going to get better … that the mission is worth pursuing … and that success will come.

The point is, effective leadership requires knowing when to be pessimistic, realistic, idealistic or optimistic.

Can you learn this skill?

I’d be optimistic about that.

What have you learned about being an optimistic, idealistic, realistic or pessimistic leader?  

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Scott Cochrane
Vice President- International, Willow Creek Association. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam, Amy and John. Football and hockey further down the list