Is Good Leadership Realistic and Optimistic?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Some leaders take the view that it’s important to plan for the worst case scenario. Others prefer to keep it positive and focus on the best possible outcomes. Which is better leadership?


We learned from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, that it’s important to “confront the brutal facts.” If there’s unpleasant information we need to deal with, it should be on the table and open for discussion. This kind of openness builds trust and helps people feel more secure when bad things are happening. With this kind of leadership, people can be part of the solution instead of wondering what is being done to address the problem.


While dealing with unpleasant facts is important for success, it’s also important to bring forward the positive possibilities. We learned from Kouzes and Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, that we need to “Inspire a Shared Vision” of the future. A positive shared vision rallies the team in moving toward the best possible outcome for the organization.

Seeking Balance

The question then, isn’t really “which approach is better leadership?” It’s “How do great leaders do both well?” Being realistic and optimistic are both important for leading in ways that bring out the best in teams and organizations, so it’s important to use “both/and” thinking as a leader to avoid getting stuck in one approach. Since they are both important, how will we know when to apply realism and when to apply optimism to managing our teams? This article contains practical tips for balancing them well without ignoring either perspective.

Applying the values of empathy, respect and care in our daily leadership will also help us notice when people are uncertain (needing the group’s positive vision clarified and amplified), and when they are fearful or overwhelmed (needing help working through unpleasant risks and challenges).

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership  

© 2022 Leading in Context LLC

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