Why optimism trumps pessimism in creating a strong organisational culture

| June 22, 2022

As we’ve seen over the last two years, leadership can take many forms when it comes to managing crises such as a global pandemic, natural disaster, or international conflict.

Who could forget New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s savvy use of social media to share important COVID-19 updates in a clear and relatable way?

More recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has captured the attention of his nation and the world with his honest, charismatic, and fearless leadership.

It’s leaders who foster hope and optimism, rather than fear and pessimism, who give me confidence in the future of Australia and the world.

Positive, optimistic, and competent leadership is vital as we adapt to the COVID-normal world, tackle climate change, and leverage technical innovation to build a prosperous and sustainable nation.

A survey by the Australian Leadership Project found that nearly 90 percent of Aussies believe the challenges of the 2020s will demand “realistic and infectiously optimistic leaders.” Yet according to the World Economic Forum, less than 16 percent of business and government leaders say they feel optimistic or positive about the world’s future.

‘Before the pandemic, the Australian Leadership Project concluded that there was a combination of 3 qualities of leadership that distinguished the typical good Australian leader – egalitarianism, self-effacing humour and plain speaking. Emerging from the pandemic and fear, we know people want optimism and hope.’

Australia Leadership Project 2021

What is ‘positive leadership’?

There is no concrete definition of positive leadership. But Professor Kim Cameron summarizes it nicely in his book Practicing Positive Leadership as “the implementation of multiple positive practices that help individuals and organizations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy, and reach levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise”.

Positive leaders focus less on the weaknesses of their employees, and more on their strengths and how they can leverage them to succeed.

In addition, positive leaders focus on creating a work environment that fosters respectful and supportive relationships through expressions of gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness.

Positive leaders harness the power of positive communication to provide negative feedback in a more constructive and encouraging way. They also prioritize developing the moral character and emotional intelligence of their employees, as well as enhancing their wellbeing and sense of purpose.

Positive leaders exude confidence and inspire optimism in the face of adversity; encourage honesty and accountability; and embrace freedom, choice, and flexibility. Their infectious energy and enthusiasm make them a valuable source of motivation.

What are the benefits?

Positive leadership can deliver numerous benefits for individuals and organizations.

Research shows that fostering a strengths-based culture and acknowledging good work leads to a more engaged workforce. According to a Gallup survey, 67 percent of employees feel more engaged when their manager gives them positive feedback on their strengths. On the other hand, just 31 percent feel engaged when their manager’s feedback focuses on their weaknesses.

Leaders who help employees to establish a strong sense of purpose, and who focus on their wellbeing, can build teams that are more emotionally invested in their work, which also minimizes staff turnover.

By facilitating positive communication and encouraging openness, leaders can create an environment in which employees feel comfortable speaking up and sharing new ideas that challenge the status quo. In turn, this can boost teamwork and collaboration.

Positive leadership can also help organizations survive and thrive during periods of uncertainty and volatility. Leaders who inspire optimism and embrace flexibility can instil confidence in their employees and boost their resilience in challenging situations.

A taskforce for change

I was one of many speakers at the 2021 Global Access Partners (GAP) Summit who called for more positive leadership to help ensure Australia’s future prosperity and sustainability. However, this wasn’t the first time the concept was raised at the annual event.

The 2015 GAP Summit highlighted the need for enlightened, courageous, and positive leaders to deal with workers’ growing concerns about the impact of automation on their jobs.

But as we reflected on the impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s workforce at last year’s GAP Summit, the importance of fostering realistic and infectious optimism in organizational culture became even more apparent. In fact, participants at the summit recommended that GAP create a taskforce on positive leadership.

I’m very proud to have recently joined GAP’s Taskforce on Positive Leadership. I’m excited to be part of the push for more enlightened and optimistic leadership across business, education, and government in the face of global change.

Over the next year, we will work with senior representatives from various sectors to explore the key elements of positive leadership and the ways in which governments and organizations in Australia can apply the concept. We aim to provide actionable recommendations as well as a strategy that leaders can use to implement these recommendations in their own workforces.

I would like to congratulate GAP on this fantastic initiative, and I look forward to helping more Australians realize the benefits of positive leadership.