Reasons to be cheerful

  • 4th July 2024

Mike Buchanan says optimism can become a habit of your leadership


Among others, the signature characteristics of successful school and college leaders are unfailingly positivity and encouragement, despite the difficulties and pressures of working in a high-accountability environment. In other words, they are unwaveringly optimistic in pursuing an excellent education for their students which enables them to change the world for the better.

There’s good evidence to support the pursuit of collective and individual optimism as a strategic characteristic for you and your organisation. For one, it helps you to keep a focus on your exemplary behaviour and how your actions, interactions and words help other people to live engaging, fulfilled, purposeful lives – in other words to be happy. Unwavering organisational optimism leads to more success, higher performance, and will save money that can be used elsewhere. Importantly, it also provides a firm foundation for stormy times when others place their trust in you, as a leader, and look to you to radiate wisdom and courage.

Work hard? We often labour under the myth that if we work hard, we will become successful and, once we are successful, then we will be happy. Thanks to decades of research in the area of positive psychology, led by Professor Marty Seligman, we now recognise that a positive, optimistic outlook is the precursor to success, not the result of it.

Positive brains have a biological advantage and we can retrain our brains to maximise our positivity. Optimism conveys an organisational and personal advantage. How we see and navigate the world constantly changes according to our mindset and we can adjust our mindset to be more fulfilled. When we get stuck in a pattern of thought that focuses on stress, negativity and failure, we can retrain our brains to spot possibility and opportunity. When challenge looms and we get overwhelmed by negativity, we can learn to regain control by focusing on small, manageable goals and then gradually expand our horizons. What works for you will also work for your colleagues and students, but they need your permission, encouragement, support and protection from the inevitable sidewinds that will try to push them off course. By investing in your social network, one of the strongest predictors of success and excellence, we can amplify and complement each other’s willpower and determination. Lasting change is possible. And you need to give yourself permission to care for yourself without feeling guilty about it.

Keep positive

Unwavering optimism is a core element of positivity and happiness. So, what does it look like and how do I bring about a transformation in my leadership? In her book, Vanessa King, positive psychology expert for Action for Happiness (, has mapped out The 10 Keys to Happier Living that you can use to transform your leadership and organisation. These are equally applicable to the children and young people in your care. When reading The 10 Keys, imagine how you could enable these to happen for you, your team and your pupils – I’ve provided some starting points if you get stuck and the book has many more suggestions. Start with small, no-cost ideas you could do tomorrow and then look for possibilities and opportunities beyond those.

The 10 Keys for Happier Living (the pneumonic spells out GREAT DREAM):

  • Giving: doing things for others and allowing others to do things for you by asking for help (try asking for help from colleagues when grappling with a problem; have a look at: org for other great ideas).
  • Relating: connecting with other people (try putting away your phone/laptop when in meetings so that you can listen intently and resist the temptation to interrupt).
  • Exercising: taking care of your body (start a lunchtime walking club with pupils; bring your dog to work and walk it with others).
  • Awareness: being mindful of yourself and your surroundings (visualise positive outcomes before crucial meetings to be aware of and control how you are feeling).
  • Trying out: learning new things (use some of your training budget to let staff learn an instrument or to sing).
  • Direction: having goals to look forward to (put postcards of your next holiday, meal etc on your desk; map out fun things in the future for colleagues and pupils).
  • Resilience: finding ways to bounce back (notice triggers that give you psychological strength so you can bring them to mind, such as spending time with friends; spend time doing things that occupy your mind and give you pleasure; find a coach or mentor).
  • Emotions: Looking for what is good (keep a daily diary of three things for which you are grateful and start your day reviewing these from the previous day; start a gratitude wall in the school).
  • Acceptance: being comfortable with who you are (ask people to tell you what they admire in you and accept their compliments with thanks – and do the same for them; ask colleagues to do the same with pupils).
  • Meaning: being part of something bigger (volunteer in your community; share why this is important to you with others; enable your colleagues to do the same).

Enacting one or more of the above, even in the smallest way, can produce an immediate and significant boost for you and your school; making them habitual can transform. Underlying all of them is your unwavering optimism that these changes will positively affect you and those around you.

In our current climate of high-stakes accountability it’s easy to focus on trying to put sticking plasters on the ills and injuries such a climate engenders. While necessary, this is not enough. The challenge for us all is to look beyond sticking plasters to building personal and organisational capacity to deal optimistically with the ebb and flow of the academic year and to look for joy in what we do and how we live.

Make an impact

Infusing positivity into your work surroundings can have an enormous impact on your mindset and sense of wellbeing. Personal mementos can be infusions of positivity and optimism. Spending time outside during the working day can boost mood, broaden thinking and improve working memory – at least one colleague of mine now conducts one-to-one meetings while walking. Spending money on meaningful, collective activities for other people boosts positive emotions that enhance motivation and work performances – I was astounded by what a positive impact spending some of our professional development budget on paying for music lessons for staff had on the culture of the school.

We cannot be happy continually even if we wished to be. However, we can build our optimism muscles to help us cope and flourish in times of adversity and so that we experience joy and enable those around us to experience joy too. That’s what unwavering optimism is all about.


Mike Buchanan is founder of and is the former executive director of HMC.

Mike Buchanan
©Russell Sach

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