Creating Appropriate Optimism


It is well known that optimistic people hold a greater number of ‘possible future selves’ in their minds than pessimistic people.

Is this a good thing?

It depends on the nature of those future selves. For example, our possible future selves may be unrealistic; they may be unachievable; they may be escapist, they may be pure fantasy. They may indicate a lack of realism, or ability to stick at a pathway which is hard, preferring to switch and try something new.

A growing number of psychologists have questioned the idea that optimism is always a good trait to possess. Indeed, from our own STEER AS Tracking data, we have shown that when a pupil iterates affective-social biases of high trust of self, combined with a high trust of others and high seeking change- they exhibit a faulty, naïve optimism. It is a pattern of thinking linked to unwise risk-taking behaviours, social naivety, entitlement, sometimes narcissism; at an extreme, the beginnings of emerging sociopathy.

However, in times of anxiety, proper optimism is both an attractive and valuable property. It seems highly likely, for example, that the Tory party selected Boris Johnson as their leader precisely because of his optimism. Whether it proves to be naïve or not, remains to be seen.

Proper optimism combines ‘multiple futures’ with the practical realism of how to achieve them. This is valuable in times of anxiety because being in a state of fear tends to exaggerate and amplify the perceived threats we feel around us. Faced with big threats, we look to the optimism of a Churchill to stand up to those threats, rather than shrink and cower from them.

So, how can we as leaders engender proper optimism in our schools in the coming year?

Perhaps the most important way to so this is to depict a compelling set of possible futures that we might all collectively reach. ‘I can see four different ways the school could evolve….’; ‘There are many different responses we can make to this situation’; ‘The current challenge has encouraged us to look beyond our normal horizons, and recognise new opportunities’.

Now, these lines don’t have to sound that cheesy; it is important they are true and well founded. What matters is the sense for people that they have both some control and some agency. They are not simply at the mercy of forces, victims of circumstances.

It takes imaginative effort for a leader to conceive of, and then convey, convincing futures. It is often said that leadership is an act of imagination; you have to make people see and believe the future you depict. Think of the great leadership speeches…. It’s worth crafting our lines to capture people’s conviction.

Most leaders labour over their language, especially at times of crisis and stress. Words chime deeply when people’s imaginings are sensitised. Perhaps your start of year address must be rather more than the standard instructions and exhortations? Churchill sold the war to the people on an offer ‘blood, toils, tears and sweat’. They must have been convinced of the future beyond this. What future will you convince your school of today?

How does STEER’s AS Tracking help you achieve this for your school?

AS Tracking is enables a school to achieve a long-term vision for strategic school pastoral development. It sets goals for your staff (delivered via high-calibre CPD); builds resources for your pupils (of them owning their own personal data in Y12 to prepare for leaving school); evidences objectives to your governors (for example, strategic pastoral investments and targets).