How to Lead With a Balanced Sense of Optimism When The Future Looks Bleak This approach can help conscientious leaders maintain good morale and results even through uncertain times.

By David Partain

Key Takeaways

  • How balanced optimism can make a difference
  • How to improve optimism if it's low
  • Why you should seek action — not perfection
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When one of the companies I worked at needed a website, my team put in about six months of work. When we launched the site, nobody liked it. It felt like we'd taken the worst of everybody's suggestions and brought them to life.

My team was down for a while, but we got focused, figured out what went wrong and made a good decision about how to move forward. 20 years later, that revised website is still the same one the company uses. It's not great, but something about it works — and it ranks high in the industry to this day.

This situation is a prime example of applying balanced optimism. Acknowledging both the good and bad, this approach ensures you're realistic and grounded as you try to stay positive. It can help any conscientious leader maintain good morale and results even through uncertain times.

Understanding the approach

In The Illusion of Strategic Optimism: Why It's Time to Rethink Your Approach, Bahram Yousefi makes the case that strategic optimism is based on feeling good all the time without an underlying reason. Is your team down 30 points in the game with only 30 seconds to go? No worries. The team can still win!

By contrast, in balanced optimism, no matter the circumstance, a leader sets realistic goals. Maybe at the onset of a project, a manager sets the goal of updating a website every month rather than getting it perfect at the onset. This provides specific monthly reasons to be optimistic.

One key to balanced optimism is sensitive listening. One of the companies I worked at was going to have layoffs. After the layoffs, one of the managers suggested that the team go out to celebrate the fact they survived. While they did not mean to be insensitive to people on their team who had recently lost friends and colleagues, leaders should never be tone-deaf about the realities people are facing.

Related: Positivity is Provocative — 3 Ways to Embrace Optimism in a Negative World

How balanced optimism can make a difference

There's some truth and benefit to pushing through, saying, "We can get through this," but people want to know that the leader's actions are based on more than the leader's feelings. Instead, these inspirational pushes should be based on the leader's realistic goals and plans. People can be optimistic when the leader proves that the optimism is warranted.

Balanced optimism connects to transparency. Leaders need to assess both the risks and rewards of the plans they have and trust people to handle both the good and bad. That can lead to a team discussion: "If the bad happens, what's the contingency plan for it?" People can then trust a leader if the leader seems to have thought through all the steps needed, no matter the outcome.

In this context, in The Bosses Guide to Leading Through Uncertain Times, Ray Smith emphasizes the need for leaders to be upfront about what they do or don't know. He explains how important it is for a leader to ask for and invite questions so that the people on the team see the leader has a handle on what they think will happen and what they'll do if their predictions come true.

Success comes down to a leader's ability to follow through on those plans. If people see that the leader is not following their plan when things go awry, the team isn't going to trust the leader or feel confident in their leadership during the inevitable hard times.

Related: 7 Reasons Why Too Much Optimism Is Bad for Business

How to improve optimism if it's low

Many leaders who aim for strategic optimism end up pushing toxic positivity into the culture. But leaders also can swing in the other direction and be too negative. I personally tend to be pessimistic. But I try to flip that inclination when necessary to be more balanced.

One of the things I like to do is focus on the long term rather than looking immediately at what's going on. Helping people see that the moment will pass is key. Then, offer people planning through multiple scenarios. Let's say scenario A happens. What's the worst that could happen with that? If a leader can put the worst into perspective and help people envision the ramifications of a worst-case scenario, the team will have an easier time believing it makes sense to keep going.

Another strategy I use is to be clear about what I, as a manager, can control. Then, I let the people on my team clarify what they, in turn, can control in the situation. So everyone knows where it's appropriate to take action and what they can be accountable for. We can put our energy where it will have the most influence and not stress about points we can't change.

Lastly, celebrate even small wins and the people who get them. If a project gets done ahead of time, celebrate that. If it is late, take the time to talk through lessons learned. As the team interacts and grows, the culture will change, and your team will be willing to take more risks. People often talk about how they learn the most through failure, but if they teach what they know, they'll engrain it in themselves and others.

Related: 3 Innate Traits You Need to Survive the Rollercoaster of Entrepreneurship

For best results, seek action — not perfection

Leaders are most effective when they are neither too optimistic nor too negative. With balanced optimism, teams are honest about what they face but don't dismiss the reasons they can win.

To make this approach work, however, ensure people know it's okay to fail and try again. People get scared in uncertainty and start thinking that they can't get through it unless they are perfect. But perfectionism is the enemy of getting things done, as it increases anxiety and slows work down. If leaders can help people rise above this hurdle, balanced optimism can be their ticket to moving forward no matter what life might throw at the business.

David Partain

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CMO of FlexShares

David Partain is SVP of Northern Trust and CMO of their subsidiary, FlexShares Exchange Traded Funds. He has over 15 years of marketing, sales and finance expertise and was named one of the "20 Rising Stars in Finance" by the Gramercy Institute.

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