Saturday, 23 July 2016

Leading With Optimism and Positivity

C.S. Lewis once wrote a reply to a letter from a girl named Joan Lancaster. In it he offered her some valuable writing tips. One piece of advice he gave has always stuck with me:

'In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."'

This week a member of my teaching team messaged me saying 'thank you for... keeping me feeling so optimistic and positive this year'. Receiving feedback like that is reassuring; I often worry my online persona does not align with how I am in real life. Upon reflection, I can probably count on one hand the number of times in the last two years that I've actually spoken the words 'positive' or 'optimistic' to them.

My colleague hasn't had the easiest of times this year and has come to me as phase leader for help many times. Had I have responded with something amounting to 'just be positive' or 'try to be optimistic' I don't think I'd have been much use - it would have seemed like I was fobbing them off with empty platitudes.

My reflection of my meagre two years in leadership is that I have somehow, despite all the challenges I myself have faced, managed to lead in a way that has made others say 'positive' and feel optimistic without my having to use those words. After spending time under my leadership my colleagues have themselves labeled my leadership style as optimistic and positive; if I'd have labeled myself as such they'd always have been looking out for when I didn't live up to my own standards. Using the words, as Lewis pointed out, would be lazy and unhelpful but acting with optimism and positivity as core principles has made my ethos clear without putting people's backs up; the very real danger of telling struggling people to be optimistic or positive is that they immediately write off the advisor as unrealistic and, quite frankly, a bit naive and stupid. As a leader you have to show that something works, in this case: positivity and optimism.

At this point another blogger would write a handy 10 step guide entitled 'How to lead with positivity and optimism' but I can't even figure out what I've done to ensure that I have been a positive and optimistic leader. I'm not even sure that those qualities are ones that can be gained in a self-improvement system - perhaps I am only positive and optimistic because I am naturally like that. I'm not even suggesting that everyone should try to lead optimistically and positively but if they do, it's not about what is said explicitly but what is implied by what is said done.

'Where there's a will, there's a way.' That is my motto, not that I ever really say it out loud, or try to force it on others. But having deep-seated convictions like this are the only thing I can identify as reasons for how and why I lead with optimism. In another recent affirming moment my wife reminded me that when we met, it was my optimism that ensured that 10 years later we are very happily married: I told her 'I think it will be really good' when she expressed concerns over conducting a long-distance relationship with a guy everyone thought wasn't intellectual enough for her. She obviously bought into my natural positivity then and mostly she still does! Acting and speaking with implicit optimism is key, especially when anticipating someone else's pessimism.

You see, optimism is for life, not just for clich├ęd quotes pasted over a photoshopped sunset. You have live it to be it - you can't just say it.

Which leaves me in a quandary. Is there actually any point in my blogging and tweeting about optimism and positivity in light of my musings here? Isn't writing about optimism and positivity akin to flippantly telling someone to look at the brightside? If my day-to-day actions can't be seen by my readers then do I stand a chance of them ever being able to truly say 'thank you for... keeping me feeling so optimistic and positive this year'? Perhaps I just have to heed Lewis' advice and become a better writer, ensuring that I don't simply write about optimism and positivity but write with optimism and positivity, avoiding the words completely. Now there's a challenge.

PostScript: I am aware that this blog post probably comes across as self-congratulatory but it's not supposed to. I often worry that my actions don't match my words here on my blog so, if anything, this is just a record of my relief at the fact that others do recognise that I practice what I preach (even though they don't know that I preach it here on the internet!). It has been quite personal, which I admit I don't always do (I usually try to write in order to help others), but I still hope it might help someone in some way. I would love to hear the reflections of other leaders who consider positivity or optimism as a core value of leadership.

4 comments:

  1. Alright Sir. Been thinking on this one since I read it this morning, and have some little interrogations to steer your way. As a senior leader, do you feel that you are sometimes under pressure to behave in a way that you know clashes with your desire to spread optimism? How do you reconcile the necessary 'on-messageness' of SLT with the desire to do things differently?

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    1. Good question Mr. Walker! I personally seem to be able to be optimistic about most things and haven't felt the need to compromise my optimism yet. That's not to say that I won't highlight weaknesses or discuss things that are going wrong - I am honest and realistic as well as optimistic! I am blessed to work as part of an SLT who, without being evangelistic about it, are pretty optimistic!

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  2. Thank you for sharing - heart felt and necessary. Thanks again.

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    1. Ah, thanks. This one was actually quite personal and more for my own good than anything but it's good that it strikes a chord with others.

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