In a year when many have faced a barrage of negativity, the demands of leading your brand narrative beyond conflict situations can at times feel like a bridge too far. Yet after speaking with several who are tapped into leadership effectiveness, Luke Clark has discovered some self-training techniques that can help you to pivot back to a positive place again

It was one of those quotes that hits you and you stay hit. Discussing a recent casualty in a year that has been almost defined by its loss, a family friend and noted fashion designer told ABC Radio how he thought that the life of late fashion icon Kenzo Takada had served as a powerful example of “optimism as activism”

Kenzo had at times faced tragedy head-on during his celebrated career, yet he had always emerged creatively defiant. Ben Mazey, former design director at Kenzo, said deliberate positivity was very much Kenzo’s modus operandi.

“Optimism is a form of activism, because it’s a form of hope,” noted Mazey. “And it really does light a fire in people — that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and things can be good. And there’s a real strength in that.”

This notion that embracing a better world might not in fact be naïve – but could in some sense be both deliberate and radical — is certainly an appealing one, particularly amidst a moment when global events, news coverage and an ever-darkening political discourse can at times seem aimed at dragging us down.

Staying above the trough

In the heat of the battle, it is hard not to react negatively to the week’s latest hailstorm of effluent. Just this year alone, we’ve all faced far too many angry knee-jerk reactions, as those in either our news feed, our business realm – or worse still, or personal lives, lashed out at their circumstances in a caustic and emotion-driven manner.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone should close a door and vent — or stand on a footbridge and yell at the traffic. And indeed, for many leaders who are just one angry email, text or social post away from getting into the mud-slinging themselves, being a part of a movement built on optimism at times can feel extremely far away.

So how can leaders approach resetting their reactions to the worst of the world outside? On one hand, you don’t want to become cynical and negative — but nor should you resort to a sort of Teflon blandness.

In a perfect world, we all want to embrace Carol Dweck’s notion of growth mindset, whereby we embrace the potential to learn in each given situation. And as Kenzo Takada himself very likely did, most of us love the notion of ikigai, or “finding joy in life through purpose”.

Shifting your reality

And yet, pleasing or otherwise, our basic natures often rebel against the notion of the bright side. After all, you might think that an author of six books on embracing the future would be the last one to at times struggle with maintaining her sense of optimism and focus. Yet as American futurist and workplace consultant Alexandra Levit explained to me earlier this year, her steely focus was not always as ever-ready as it is today.

“I’m a textbook case of the fact that positivity can be learned. I am not somebody who has that temperament naturally,” says the author of energising books like Humanity Works and They Don’t Teach Corporate in College. “I tend to be a little bit pessimistic, I tend to be cynical — I look for the things that are wrong in most cases, rather than the things that are right.”

Speaking to me earlier in the year for a campaign around careers, Levit spoke in hushed tones by phone from her home in Chicago — so that we wouldn’t wake her daughter. She explained that her research experiences, which include ample exposure to some of industry’s best leaders, had proved to her that while she may frequently have less control of outside forces, she could still stay in control of how these forces affected her.

“I have had to train myself in that,” she explains. “I think that if you crack it, and you’re mindful of what you’re thinking at any given time, then it’s not about the reality — it’s how you think about that reality.”

While the very suggestion of self-programming will be far too way-out for some, Levit is far from the ‘woo-woo’ type. And indeed, finding a way to temper our response to inputs, can be a vital part of any team leader’s armour – helping us to stay grounded and maintain a forward focus, even with events exploding around us.

“There is no real objective reality — it’s all your perception,” she explained. It felt mighty philosophical for a mid-morning phone chat in Singapore. Yet the notion means that in effect, our brains can indeed play a powerful part in helping us shape and reshape our reality.

“If you can shift your thinking to a more positive end, your reality is going to be more positive.” This of course is far from simple to achieve. “I say it like it’s easy to do, but it isn’t. But it’s worth developing,” she advises. “Because that’s going to be useful not just in your professional life — but in your personal life as well.”

A perfect reaction formula

“Science shows us time and again that the mind is a powerful determinant for success,” business leader Andy Bentote reaffirms. As Senior Managing Director for PageGroup in Greater China, Bentote has seen more than his share of peaks and troughs during his time insight the world’s fastest-growing talent market.

Yet as someone who embraces problem-solving, Bentote likes to teach his senior team a number of coping strategies that can help them better own their reality – or at least the part that they can shape. “An equation that I like in leadership terms is the simple idea of ‘E + R = O’, or Event + Reaction = Outcome,” he says.

“In any situation as a leader, the event is often out of our control, but it can create an immediate emotional response. Yet for both our company and team, it’s really our reaction to the event that will determine the outcome,” notes Bentote. “The key therefore is that in any situation, when confronted with a stressful event, our minds should immediately focus on the sort of outcome we wish to achieve,” he suggests.

Even in the most highly-charged environments, such a technique can move us away from allowing our emotions to run the show — and give our logical minds a chance to gain a seat at the decision-making table. “It helps us to craft our reaction — and in particular, avoid us taking actions that might made the outcome worse.”

Control of conflict

Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t react to outside stresses and deal with them constructively. Rough times will always take their toll, and that’s fine. Controlling the outcome is not the same as saying that whatever happens, we must always “put on a happy face”. Indeed, the insistence on applying a sort of fake non-reality is not only unrealistic, it can also be harmful.

We’ve all been side-swiped before — and dealing with the emotion involved afterwards is a big part of emerging from it stronger. Do deal with it though. The truism holds that anger when buried can become depression. Process it ideally in a safe way and with a neutral audience, ideally someone who will hear you for a bit, then encourage you to look a little deeper to learn from it.

The sting of recent impact is often the perfect time to see things clearly. Then once you’re in a better space, the key is then to craft a calm, honest and reasoned response. What do you want this incident to ultimately be about — and what might ultimately be taken from it that’s positive?

After all, the real power lies in crafting the sort of reaction that factually acknowledges the issue, including the mistakes made, yet stays calm and focused on the outcome. It’s this sort of lesson that strong leaders are known for — and one that is far more likely to convince people to move forward with you. Not to mention far closer to optimism as activism than if you’d stayed in that mud pit, lobbing bombs.

Protect yourself from stress

Learning to find a silver lining in any situation can not only be a key to personal and professional growth — it can also offer you an important key to maintaining health in an increasingly stressful world. As such, everything from breathing techniques and mindfulness training, to yoga and meditation, can be a key to maintaining a healthy mind and body, amidst a world that can appear increasingly broken.

“Across all domains in our society, things are only getting more complicated,” says Levit. “Your ability to look at the bright side of things is really going to help your general level of well-being.”

“In a time when people are more anxious, depressed and negative than they’ve ever been, it’s probably one of the most important things you can do for yourself,” Levit advises. “It’s not only going to help your career, it’s going to help everything else too.”

Photo: Mikechie Esparagoza,