How Leaders Know When to be an Optimist, Realist or Pessimist

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As a leader are you supposed to be an optimistic, a pessimist, an idealist, or a realist?

The answer is “yes”.

The key is knowing when to be which.

This is not about being inauthentic.

The reality is, in some circumstances a leader must be a grim-faced pessimist, while in others it requires being a cheery-faced optimist.

How do you know? Here’s a basic guideline to help you navigate this.

1.   A leader must be a PESSIMIST when…

…making financial forecasts in a challenging season.

When the financial fortunes of the organization are at stake it’s time for the leader to put on the demeanor of a pessimist.

Perhaps a better word than pessimistic is “cautious”. Any leader who has led a turnaround will tell you that the first step is to stop the bleeding by taking a worst-case scenario approach to budgeting.

2.   A leader must be a REALIST when…

…developing the team.

A leader must not only be committed to the development of the team, the leader must also be ruthlessly realistic when it comes to the potential of each team member.

Nothing will crush the spirit of a rising leader quite like giving them too much responsibility too soon. Instead, effective leaders must be realistic when it comes to each one’s potential, and then design their development plan accordingly.

3.   A leader must be an IDEALIST when…

…casting vision.

Ideals have gone out of fashion in our culture. But effective leaders must embrace the ideals of their organization’s mission and vision and describe them with authentic passion.

Why does the organization exist? What difference will it make in the world? These are the organization’s ideals, and the leader must espouse them eloquently and proudly.

4.   A leader must be an OPTIMIST when…

…building a healthy culture.

When the going gets hard, the team wants to know essentially one thing: “Is all of this work worth it?”

The leader’s job is to remind the team that, together under God, things are going to get better…That the mission is worth pursuing…and that success will come.

The point is, effective leadership requires knowing when to be pessimistic, realistic, idealistic or optimistic.

Can you learn this skill?

I’d be optimistic about that.

What have you learned about being an optimistic, idealistic, realistic or pessimistic leader?






the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.


  1. Scott…great post.

    I’ve learned to be pessimistic when something sounds too good to be true. Because our churches are places of trust, it can make it easy for people to try to bring a great financial “scheme” into the church. I like your word cautious.

    I’ve learned to be optimistic when listening to the ideas of a young leader or someone who doesn’t normally offer a suggestion. When the fire is lit, you can gently guide it; when there’s no fire, it takes more work.

  2. Hey Scott:
    Appreciate this post. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership. If anything, a leader must develop the emotional intelligence to know which of these hats to where at any given moment.

    I wrote a similar post about a leader needing to be both content and discontent (which “tent” do you live in?) that speaks to this same idea.

    Hitting the “tweet” button right now!

  3. It’s essential to know when and which form to take as a leader, whether – a pessimistic, a optimistic, an idealistic, or a realistic.
    The trick to it, is to have situational awareness ‘koo duoy’, as well as a good level of emotional awareness, so as to be able to effective adapt to changing circumstances.
    As a leader, one must be careful when been an idealistic, because the elements of morale do not yield to academic wisdom. So, a leader must not only appeal to the ideals of the organisation, but be a realistic and an idealistic at almost the same time, – while been eloquent and proud about what is in it for his team, he must keep their morale high ie. He must be mentally aware of the continuous interactions of opposites, as well as, the psychological forces and effects. For a leader of any pack to be effective and achieve success efficiently and economically, he must have a barometer to gauge the spirit of his team, the terrain, the times, their peculiar circumstances, the genius of his lieutenants and his own mental biases. I think Aristotle advice may come in handy ” Man must train himself to think ahead and feel beyond the present moment”.

  4. Heather, I LOVE the idea of being a pessimist when “it sounds too good to be true”. A leadership mentor of mine always reminded me to keep my “B.S. radar” (sorry for the vulgarity!) on full alert when you think someone is feeding you overly good news.

  5. Jephtah, you’ve taken this concept to an important next level. That is, sometimes a leader doesn’t have the luxury of choosing which of these mindsets to employ; sometimes one must exercise idealism and realism simultaneously!

    That’s a leadership challenge for sure!

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