Why optimistic realists make the best leaders

Brian de Haaff explains why effective leadership is all about finding a balance between idealism and practicality

Why optimistic realists make the best leaders

Business Strategy


I once worked for a guy who always had a smile on this face. He was a friend to everyone and always thought it was a beautiful day. But he wasn’t fully respected by his peers because he never prioritized work that had the best chance of being successful. Instead, he wasted a lot of time and money by blindly assuming everything would work out. A lot of times he was wrong. He only looked ahead at sunshine. 

I also once worked for a woman who was so mired in the dysfunction of the organizational reality that she never pressed for what was ambitious and right. What was new and exciting could never be pursued because it had never been done before. The weight of the organization and its plodding pace crushed her. She had no hope. So she only looked behind at clouds. 

Both leaders had meaningful skills and were well intentioned, but both were limited in their success by their single-focus worldview.   

The most successful leaders function with a healthy dose of forward-thinking optimism and down-to-earth realism. They look forward and behind. In fact, one study found that people with an optimistic realist personality type are often happier and more successful. That’s because these pragmatic minds know how to combine the positive outlook of an optimist with the sharp-eyed view of a realist. 

Although the two leaders I worked with were uniquely single-minded, most of us are capable of seeing both sides of a situation and finding a way forward. In fact, I believe being an optimistic realist will do more than help you move forward – it will make you a great leader. Here are four reasons why. 

1. You know the power of a plan 
Leaders are the ones setting the course and adjusting the sails. When your team hits rough waters, you don’t expect that they’ll magically turn things around. And you don’t waste time grumbling about what they did wrong. Instead, you identify clear action steps to tackle the problem and move forward together. 

2. You’re transparent with your team 
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to shelter your team from looming problems. Optimistic realists know that you can be transparent about the issues at hand while also being the encouraging force that gets your team back on track. That is because transparency leads to trust. Your honesty builds a better work environment. 

3. You understand your limitations 
Optimistic realists know that they can’t do it all, but they also know that the team around them can help them accomplish so much more. Your greatest resources as a leader are the people you work with every day - the engineers, the customer success managers, the marketing team. Be honest with them that you need help and remain positive that they will help you come up with the solution. 

4. You sense when it’s time to reset 
Times of crisis are opportunities to reflect on the big picture. But as a leader, it’s on you to make the final call when it’s time to push the ‘reset’ button. Always go back to your goals and ask yourself the tough questions: Are we still on track? Have we lost sight of our vision? 

Great teams build great companies. So the next time a crisis hits, reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses – then rally and pull from the people around you. When your team sees you as an optimistic realist, they will likely adopt the attitude for themselves. You will encourage a workplace of critical thinkers who know there’s a solution to every problem and work tirelessly until they find it. 

Brian de Haaff is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world's #1 product roadmap and marketing planning software — and the author of  Lovability. His two previous companies were acquired by well-known public corporations. De Haaff writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life. For more information, visit aha.io.

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