The Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership: A Day-by-Day Practice

Today’s blog is co-authored with Tara Skiles, Director of Professional Development for the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education and a member of our Optimistic Leadership Council.

Jalissa is a professional development manager at a large social services agency on the West Coast. It’s Wednesday and as five o’clock approaches, she’s feeling pretty satisfied with the day’s accomplishments. Reviewing her “to-do” list, she has only two emails left to send. “Yes,” she thinks to herself. “Not only have I gotten through my to-do list, I’ll actually get home on time.”

Just then, Tonya, a colleague in the department, collapses into the chair beside Jalissa’s desk, her frustration spilling out all over. Verging on tears, Tonya blurts, “I’m furious. Deidre did it again.” (Deidre is a senior vice president at the agency.) “Without consulting us, she changed the plans we worked on last week. I feel so undermined. I don’t know why I create plans if she’s going to change them at the eleventh hour and for no justifiable reason.” Getting sucked right into Tonya’s fury — and erasing her own sense of accomplishment in the process — Jalissa responds. “I know exactly what you mean. Tell me what happened.” Thirty minutes later (and with neither of her last two emails written), Jalissa and Tonya are still rehashing the story when Jalissa suddenly realizes that she’ll be late getting home for the third time this week.

How might this story be different when Jalissa embraces the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership as a daily practice?

  1. Think impact to make informed decisions. To practice this commitment means pausing just long enough to think before you act. Whether you’re entering your classroom in the morning, having a parent conference, leading a meeting, or sending an email, taking just a moment to ask yourself, “what do I want to have happen” allows you to act with intention rather than in reaction. Rather than fixing what’s happening in this moment, you can consider how the implications of your decision will unfold over time.

2. Cultivate self-awareness to guide thought, emotion, and behavior. Practicing this commitment means noticing what is going on with your body, mind, feelings, and behavior. It also involves being clear about your strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and assumptions, and how these things influence one another. The self-aware person questions how she comes across to others. The more you cultivate self-awareness, the more choices you have about how you want to show up.

3. Nurture relationships to support learning and collaboration. The Optimistic Leader recognizes the importance of building strong, trusting relationships and forges positive and productive connections that strengthen teams. Professional relationships necessitate appreciating different styles of communicating, reflecting, interacting and problem-solving.

4. Refine communication for mutual clarity and understanding. Optimistic Leaders use communication to maintain positive and effective relationships and use conversation rather than top-down commands. To refine communication, you have to think about the impact you want to have on others and practice self-awareness to appreciate diverse perspectives. Some ways to refine communication include pausing before speaking, monitoring your tone, listening well, asking questions, being sensitive to cultural and linguistic diversity, and adjusting your style and delivery to the person with whom you are speaking.

5. Activate curiosity to find connections and continue learning. The Optimistic Leader asks questions, considers possibilities, and makes connections with a focus on goals and actions. She shares knowledge with humility and always looks for additional resources and perspectives. Rather than worrying about failure, she acknowledges that mistakes lead to growth and change.

Practicing the Five Commitments of Optimistic Leadership means that Jalissa is thinking more and reacting less. As a result, she is feeling more effective and satisfied with her work.

Jalissa and Tonya are fictional characters invented by Tara and me as a result of our collective experiences in early learning. While each of us own the less effective behavior patterns of both characters, we also are working hard to practice the tools and strategies of Optimistic Leaders attributed to Jalissa.

Showing up as an Optimistic Leader is not an overnight process. We’re finding it so much more productive and satisfying to navigate in partnership with other colleagues. Join us in conversation by adding comments to this blog below and visiting us at www.leadingforchildren.org and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

[1] Researchers describe emotional contagion as what happens when you mimic, usually unconsciously, the emotions and expressions of people around you.

© Leading for Children, 2020.

Judy is the Executive Director of Leading for Children, a national nonprofit that empowers early childhood professionals to be leaders and learners.