Resilient Leadership: Optimism
Resilient leaders are optimists at heart.
In over twenty-five years of teaching, I was lucky enough to work for some truly inspirational school leaders and whilst they were all very different people, who brought their own distinct personalities to the role, they shared a common trait: optimism. I never worked for anyone whose natural pessimism inspired me to improve my performance, either as teacher or as a leader myself.
I guess in our heart of hearts, most of us would prefer to be considered an optimist. We tend to think of optimists as being popular, gregarious types; the kind of people you might want to include in any fantasy dinner party guest list.
By contrast, we often think of pessimists as people who are the harbingers of doom. Let’s face it, if you were allowed to select the members of your year group team you would hardly likely to shout out, ‘Let’s have Rebecca, she’s really pessimistic!’ I kind of imagine them as the sort of people that you might well take a swift detour into a stock room to avoid as you spy them coming down the corridor with the demeanour of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
So what is Optimism?
Optimism can be defined as a tendency to look on the more favourable side of life’s events. It is a disposition, if you like, in which the individual expects favourable outcomes.
Optimism is closely associated with words such as hopefulness, cheerfulness and confidence.
Optimistic school leaders will likely encounter as much adversity as anyone else, but they tend to see that adversity as a challenge to be overcome, and may even derive satisfaction from attempting to conquer it. Of course, not all challenges can be overcome; set-backs and failure will punctuate every school leader’s career However, optimistic leaders tend to see failure as a temporary state.
‘If you believe it will work out, you’ll see opportunities. If you believe it won’t, you will see obstacles.’
Pessimism has been linked with psychological conditions such as depression, stress, and anxiety (Kamen & Seligman, 1987).
Pessimistic people tend to see the meaning of life’s events as inherently negative and discouraging.
If this thinking becomes habit it becomes what Dr Martin Seligman describes as ‘learned helplessness’. Helpless people will see events as being out of their control and therefore expect that whatever they do will have little or no impact. Such thinking can lead to apathy and apathy can have no place in the modern school.
I recently interviewed Hannah Wilson, then Executive Headteacher of Aureus School and Aureus Primary schools in Didcot. She put it something like this:
‘Whilst, all school leaders will have their moments of doubt, we have an unswerving duty to look a four-year-old in the eye for the first time and be optimistic for their future.’
She is right, of course. While the educational landscape is more challenging than at any time I can re-call, the moment we cannot find some shred of optimism within us, that is the time to walk away.
Whatever your current challenges, try to look for the opportunities, however small, that they might present.
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