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Infectiously Optimistic Leadership

Infectious Optimism is the key to effective leadership in the 2020s: Inspiring and tapping into the optimism of those around you.

By Victor Perton, the Author of "Optimism: The How and Why?"

Life calls us to lead from kindergarten to our deathbed.

Optimism helps you function better as a leader.

At the Centre for Optimism, we work around self-leadership, self-empowered leadership and infectious optimism.

A popular mantra for our supporters and workshop participants is “The Leader looks like the person in My Mirror.”

I interviewed the global leader of positive psychology, Professor Martin Seligman, on what makes him optimistic. (See Video)

On the point of personal leadership, Martin said, “The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, and that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”

Social psychologists Lise Solberg and Suzanne Segerstrom found that optimists were more likely to take charge and find ways to solve their problems than pessimists. They chose coping strategies such as seeking emotional support, drawing on spiritual resources, or becoming more accepting of their situation. They also decided not to run away from their problems.

Research by leading head-hunting firms finds infectious optimism as the key trait to success in leadership.

In sales, excellent studies show that optimistic salespeople and agents, on average, sell far more than pessimists.

In medicine, studies show on average optimistic doctors make better diagnoses.

When you recruit, recruit optimists.

What the optimist lacks in job-specific skills, they can acquire through their enthusiasm and application.

If interviewing, ask the question of the candidate for the job, what makes you optimistic? How do you infect others with your optimism? If preparing to be interviewed, prepare yourself to answer those questions.

As Sally Foley-Lewis told me, “Bringing more optimism into workplaces aligns with improving workplace cultures that lead to less staff-turnover, higher productivity and profits. Optimism can start from reframing an attitude or viewpoint from mistrust or concern to most people want to do well and most people want to get along, be engaged and be a valuable contributor.”

In my work with the Australian Leadership Project, it was clear that optimistic leaders have a clear advantage in the Australian culture and beyond.

My subsequent research and interviews have established this is a global human phenomenon.

The zeitgeist in the developed world is pessimistic and cynical. Yet, the times call for realistic and infectiously optimistic leadership.

The post-pandemic 2020s lends itself to leaders who can generate optimism in their teams.

The best leaders are infectious optimists and lead their teams to discover greater optimism, resilience and self-mastery.

The 2022 global example of generating a national spirit of optimism is Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

When the American Government offered to evacuate his family and him, he said, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asked President Zelenskyy about his optimism. The President said, “Why it is so optimistic is that we have a very profound faith in ourselves And a very profound faith in the west, a profound faith in people.”

In my country, professionally and looking beyond their home environment, Australians are increasingly pessimistic when looking at corporations, institutions, the nation, the world and the future of work. Similar results ring true of much of the developed world.

I recently led an hour of optimism for the suburban Greater Dandenong Chamber of Commerce. The founder of Team Kids, Sam Hoath, told us, “I think a fundamental reason my business has been quite successful is that I always see the opportunity in things. I always see the brightest side of things. And I think what happens is that optimism becomes infectious in a good way. It provides hope and it provides positivity. And I think the culture in any organization is the most important thing. And if you can share optimism, then that promotes healthy culture positive culture. And I think that’s a key ingredient for success, no matter what you’re looking to do.”

Many economic surveys purport to measure optimism on a weekly and monthly basis. While shallow, I take from these surveys that optimism is the lifeblood of a growing economy. Silicon Valley and Israel thrive on the optimism of their entrepreneurs and innovators.

We’re not talking about being a Pollyanna, although being Pollyannish does have its virtues in supporting ambition and passion. Earlier I quoted the New York fashion designer Anna Sui who said: “When I was a kid, my favourite movie was Pollyanna because she was the ultimate optimist. I wanted that optimism, that dreaming of the possibilities.

In our corporate and institutional work, we ask senior leaders to open up conversations right across the business on what makes the team members optimistic.

I spoke with a Singapore businessman frustrated that the effect of his Monday morning pep talks to his sales team appeared to have worn off by Monday lunchtime. I suggested he change one of his Monday morning meetings to include an opening question from each of his sales team expressing their case for optimism. It worked! He has made it a monthly ritual at sales meetings.


What to do?

So, what should you do if the leader looks like the person in your mirror?

Learn more about Fostering the Habits of an Optimist.

 Ask yourself, “what makes me optimistic?”

 Ask your family what makes them optimistic.

 Ask your workmates what makes them optimistic.

 Experiment: In the next meeting you lead, go around the table asking each person what makes them optimistic. Take your time, don’t rush. If someone doesn’t feel ready to express themselves, let them take a pass.

It can be very emotional. And on the other hand, a good workplace can be a refuge from the problems of home, family and the rest of the world. It’s worth doing. It’s worth opening up a conversation on optimism at work and home. It’s a good conversation!

Read the quotes on optimistic leadership below.  Feel free to share one of the quotes which impress you with others face-to-face or via social media.

Write: Write down your arguments for infectiously optimistic leadership. Speak them out loud.


Dominic Barton, then Global Managing Director, McKinsey now Chair of Rio Tinto

“Optimism is at the very core of leadership. The best leaders I have encountered in my career are those that remain optimistic –- and ambitious -– for their organisations even in the face of great adversity. They are those whose optimism enables them to recognise the potential in others and help them develop to be leaders themselves.”

Robert Masters, Chair, Centre for Optimism

 “Leadership and optimism are the two key elements the community wants in today's unsettled world. Leaders must have optimism as the foundation for all their policies; and they must deliver it through sound, confident and stable leadership. Growth, employment, equality, innovation, tax, health, education, security all require this thinking. Communities not only expect it, but also deserve it.”

Nelson Mandela

 "I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward."

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo

“A leader should convey ‪optimism and encourage his or her people, even though there are many difficult challenges.”

“There is no country on earth that prospers without optimism.”

Bob Iger, CEO of Walth Disney in his book, The Ride of a Lifetime

"One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less-than-ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energised by pessimists."

Uschi Schreiber, Chair, Health Care at APM Group

“Optimism is inherent to good leadership - it’s all about creating a vision for a better future and instilling that optimistic view in others.”

Denis Henry, when Chairman of the Royal Flying Doctor Service

“Optimism about the future and about the essential goodness in the majority of your community and workforce. Optimism is the fuel for the certainty and commitment a leader needs.”

Dr Tommy Weir

 "A leader’s optimism spreads further than their circle of support and radiates longer than the ring of the words. The optimistic leader describes what can be achieved. They talk about it. They’re excited about it. They inspire others to see coming success. And more so, they give their teams a reason to embrace this belief.”

Professor Bernd Vogel, Professor in Leadership and Founding Director of the Henley Centre for Leadership

“I am passionate about optimism in leadership. Leadership practice seems to give little room for hope. Yet, we might not look hard enough and not in the right areas of business and society. An optimistic outlook makes you find and recognise small or large leadership processes by the many that are resourceful, fair and rich in contributions. That changes the narrative and reality towards leadership optimism.”

James Strock, Serve to Lead

"Vision is the ultimate source of all leadership. Optimism is vision girded for battle. Optimism can be a shape-shifting and protean force, moving like water past all obstacles, breaking a path of love, expressed in courage." 

Guy Kawasaki, Chief Evangelist, Canva

“Optimism is a cornerstone of knowing how to lead a team. Learning how being optimistic can help leaders show their teams that the future looks bright."

Jo Mikleus, Executive General Manager Insurance, Latitude Financial

“Optimism in leadership embodies essential qualities required to lead in a fast-paced and ever-changing world. I think the valuable qualities of an optimistic leader include self-awareness, flexibility, self-confidence, initiative, resilience, and adaptability.  Having an optimistic outlook creates conditions for success as it allows leaders to recognise and redirect unhelpful reactions, to think before acting, and to choose positive responses. Leaders who are optimistic generally raise the aspirations of their teams to aspire towards (and achieve) their best. They do this by creating an environment that blends vision with personal accountability, innovative thinking and appropriate risk-taking.”

Joel Backwell, Executive Director of the Victorian Government's Office for Suburban Development

"What makes me optimistic is the power of diversity and knowing that the best in everyone is good enough. And that as leaders, if we nurture and bring out the best in everyone in our community, we can solve any problem, meet any challenge and make the world a better place for us all."

Theresa Moltoni OAM,  Vice-President of the Fair Work Commission and former President of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry Queensland.

“Optimism in leadership destroys the barriers to success. Embracing optimism empowers us to ignore the obstacles that might otherwise prevent us from reaching our potential as organisations, as communities, as teams, as families and as individuals.”

Bruna Martinuzzi, Author of The Leader as a Mensch

 "Optimism is a key leadership trait for anyone leading teams. It can be especially important for anyone who leads an entrepreneurial venture where risk and uncertainty are common, and where an optimistic outlook for the future can help stay the course. But being optimistic doesn't mean being bull-headed and refusing to face facts. And it doesn't mean going around wearing the proverbial rose-coloured glasses. It's about being inclined to hope. It's leading teams by showing them that you have confidence in a better tomorrow no matter what false starts or setbacks the team may be facing today."

Fred Wilson, Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures

"It is time to stay positive. When you are the leader of a company (or anything else), you have to lead with optimism, enthusiasm, and positive energy."

Allan Shaw

“Good leaders always look over their metaphoric shoulder to ensure that they have followers who are positive and optimistic.”

Rebekah Foster, when at Central Highlands Water and now Cafs

 "An optimistic leader welcomes change over security and adventure over staying in safe places. They may not be the lead decision-maker in an organisation but rather the one with the ability to bring people on the journey to challenge the norm and welcome the unknown."


Simon Haigh, The Growth Strategist

 “Optimistic leadership is about providing a bridge to the future. Good leaders need good followers; this is done through inspiring and influencing positively and optimistically.”

Dr Steve Weitzenkorn, Co-author, The Catalyst Effect

"Great leaders, regardless of their role or title, invigorate with optimism to achieve extraordinary results. Optimistic leadership has the power to galvanize — to catalyze — and be a force for driving an organization to new heights, turning performance around, and rebuilding momentum. 

"Extensive research has shown that optimism generates purposeful energy, creative thinking, and a drive for results. It propels and creates a belief in great possibilities. Intel cofounder Robert Noyce said optimism is “an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?” Invigorating with Optimism, one of the 12 competencies described in The Catalyst Effect, conveys a can-do spirit. Can’t-do advocates are quick to cite reasons why something cannot be accomplished and why efforts to try are a waste of time and energy. If naysayers had prevailed, people would have never landed on the moon; laparoscopic surgery that reduces body trauma, pain, scarring, and recovery time would not have been developed; and you wouldn’t have a smartphone in your pocket or bag. All of these, and far more, came about because optimists believed they were possible — which triggered high-energy, catalytic undertakings that brought them to fruition.

"Central to Invigorating with Optimism is the strong and shared belief that a team or organization can rise to great heights, whether from great depths or the middle of the pack, and excel with its own winning formula."

Angela Kambouris in  "9 ways to lead your team into an Unknowable Future: Angela Kambouris"

"Leaders must demonstrate a spirit of purpose and optimism to reinforce the idea that an uncertain future has the potential to be a better future." 

Chip Laingen in "Leadership & Optimism ~ and Their Relationship to Joy"

"We can be realistic as leaders, even to the point of being cautious in some things. But unless we deliver an optimistic roadmap for the best outcomes, those we lead won’t perform to their potential. And achieving that means living and exuding an authentic joy for the mission at hand."

Read More and Join in: Celebrate Joy and Optimism

Joe Biden, President

 “There is overwhelming reason to be optimistic.”

 "I’m always optimistic."

“Democracy begins and will be preserved in we, the people’s, habits of heart, in our character: optimism that is tested yet endures, courage that digs deep when we need it, empathy that fuels democracy, the willingness to see each other not as enemies but as fellow Americans."

President Tsai Ing-wen, the Republic of China on Taiwan

"We will face the future with optimism and overcome challenges with determination."

Sheikh Mohammed, PM, United Arab Emirates

"I am optimistic about the future. I always look as the glass as half full. As much as the "Arab Fall" was costly, its lessons were valuable. I believe that the majority of the leaderships in the Arab world have learned these lessons"

Kofi Annan, Former United Nations Secretary-General

“I am a stubborn optimist. I was born an optimist. The moment I lose hope all is lost. And I would encourage you to keep hope alive also.“


Luke Howarth MP speaking on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023

"Potential can only translate into reality with bold, ambitious and Optimistic Leadership."

Christine Lagarde, Head of the European Bank

 "I'm optimistic. It's my nature.”


President Bill Clinton

“I am the ultimate optimist: I always see the glass as half full”

Rachel Aziz, Chief People & Culture Officer at recoveriescorp.

"It is well-documented and researched that optimism and positivity impact the success of people and organisations. Science tells us optimistic people live longer, stronger, healthier lives. Optimism is a key attribute I seek out in others, because I know it gives them confidence to achieve, deliver and perform – in business this is a critical skill. In uncertain times optimism gives us the strength to continue on, and is infectious to those around us. As a leadership attribute this is key to influencing and bringing others on the journey in an uncertain ever-changing world.” 

Jane Horan, EdD

"As we navigate uncertainty, a leader's ability to help teams reflect on the positive aspects of change and facilitate clients to do the same will positively impact the firm. Optimism in leaders inspires and drives engagement, and it's precisely this message that teams need to hear during turbulent times. Optimism with a dash of realism helps teams negotiate the road ahead."

Carmine Gallo in "Optimism: The Mindset That Drove America’s ‘Golden Age’ Of Entrepreneurship"

"Leaders choose their mindset. Optimism and pessimism are choices. Optimism is the tendency to expect good outcomes, even in uncertain situations. Optimists focus on opportunities and look for solutions. On the other hand, pessimism is the tendency to expect bad outcomes and to believe the world is a dangerous place—and will only worsen. Therefore, pessimists focus on problems and obstacles. Overall, the main difference between optimists and pessimists is their perspective on expectations for the future."

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