The UK has entered its third national lockdown: the government has acted and parliament has given its consent. Criticism of the decision itself has been relatively muted, bar predictable contributions from the usual suspects; but what’s attracting the ire of the opposition and other commentators is the length of time it took for the Prime Minister to make up his mind about what to do.

What’s contributed to this indecisiveness? Fears for the economic consequences, certainly, combined with quickly changing circumstances (the government hoped to stick with the old tier system until the new Covid variant made it plain that they had to take more drastic action); an ideological reluctance to be seen to be telling people what to do, and restricting their civil liberties; and related concerns about a possible vote of no confidence in the government led by restive Conservative backbenchers.

But another factor relates more particularly to Boris Johnson: he doesn’t like to deliver bad news, or to be associated with it. A coronavirus bingo card is currently doing the rounds on social media, populated with the phrases Johnson likes to use in his prime ministerial addresses – and it’s notable how many of them (‘alas’, ‘it’s with a heavy heart…’) relate to how painful it is for him personally to have to pass on difficult messages.

‘Good news’ brand of leadership

Johnson’s positive outlook has often been commented on, and he’s made a point in the past of setting himself and his government – in the context of Brexit – against the ‘doubters, doomsters and gloomsters’ who had expressed reservations about his proposed course of action. His brand – similar to that of his erstwhile ally Donald Trump – relies on being associated with good news and optimism. Maybe that explains his pledge to vaccinate (‘with a fair wind’) over 13 million people in the UK by the middle of February.

This was greeted with sceptical groans in my household when we heard it on January 4th, and I suspect that lots of people around the country felt the same way. It came, of course, from the man who stressed that schools were ‘safe’ on January 3rd, and then swiftly announced their closure, also on January 4th. Nobody likes delivering bad news, of course; everyone would rather pass on a positive message if they could; but allow yourself to be associated with too many over-hopeful and subsequently broken promises, and you’ll start to lose credibility pretty quickly.

Keeping it real

What’s emerged from participant feedback on courses we’ve delivered recently is how much people appreciate realism from their leaders. In the past few months we’ve developed and run very popular sessions on leading with ‘bounded optimism’. This means taking a proactive, optimistic approach to difficult situations, but tempering that with realism and rationality. Not simply pretending that everything will be alright and focussing on delivering good news, but honestly acknowledging difficult circumstances and stressing the capability of those involved to face up to them.

The management consultancy McKinsey – in its April 2020 paper on the subject – describes bounded optimism as ‘confidence combined with realism’, acknowledging that leaders don’t have to make a binary choice between pessimism and optimism, but that there’s a spectrum of potential outlooks and behaviours available. The critical extra factor is the presence or absence of realism.

Unrealistic pessimism might lead you to assume that any situation you’re faced with is hopeless and that there’s nothing you can do about it; it wouldn’t take long for an irrationally gloomy leader’s outlook to spread to the rest of their team. At the other end of the spectrum, Unrealistic optimism is equally dangerous, and could tempt you into making big, but empty promises.

Realistic pessimism, by contrast, involves a rational assessment of ‘the worst that could happen’ and focusses on obstacles and the possibility of negative outcomes. It’s very helpful when it comes to assessing risk, but it can be associated with a fixed mindset and may not be solution-focussed enough. That said, if you’re leading a team, it will always be helpful to listen to the realistic pessimists, especially if you’re wary of the false reassurances of ‘groupthink’.

Realistic optimism is more action-focussed. It acknowledges potential challenges, but is imbued with a realistic, pragmatic positivity. It doesn’t pretend that finding a solution won’t involve hard work, but nor does it assume that a positive outlook on its own will produce results. Most importantly, because realistic optimists have what psychologist Dr Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’, they’re less bound by the fear of failure or loss, and more focussed on what can be achieved.

As we face the worst days and weeks of the Covid crisis in the UK, I’m taking solace in the mantra often cited by senior medics and epidemiologists: ‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best’. The prime minister would do well to make a study of their cautiously optimistic but realistic approach, for the good of his own personal brand, but, much more importantly, for the good of the nation.


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