Last month I reached out to some Des Moines leaders to ask what issues were top of mind as they entered 2021. A theme quickly emerged: Many said leading their teams with optimism and positivity was critical in times of continued uncertainty and challenge.

This theme resonated with me. I’ve always tried to radiate optimism, but during the last year there have been times I’ve worried that being positive could come off as tone-deaf or insensitive. Given the gravity of the times, perhaps a more sober style of leadership was called for?

Thus questioning, I was heartened to stumble across a webinar by the Association for Talent Development that pointed out positivity is scientifically proven to help build resilience, saying, “... research shows that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain — especially during crisis and suffering.” 

The association’s research indicated “the more positive the brain becomes during challenges, the more capable it is to proactively adapt to changing circumstances and recover from stress, anxiety, and trauma.” That sentence alone convinced me that not only was an upbeat approach OK, it was a necessary element of leadership in this environment.

Here is what several Des Moines leaders had to say about leading with optimism or positivity:

Joe Murphy, executive director, Iowa Business Council: While it is important to recognize the significant challenges associated with the pandemic and other issues ... it is important for leaders to convey a sense of optimism. We can do this by being honest about the challenges while also conveying that we can accomplish anything while working together.

Tiffany Tauscheck, chief operations officer, Greater Des Moines Partnership: I try to model the behaviors I hope to ignite/inspire/see in others. There’s so much we can accomplish together. With this time of change comes great opportunity.   

Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, CEO, Proteus Inc.: It is important to laugh and experience joy always, but especially during these turbulent times. One thing I’ve instilled at Proteus at every staff meeting is a fun or silly activity for us to connect and share joy together.

Joseph Jones, executive director, Harkin Institute: It’s important that I have a positive mindset every day when I am working with my team. I know that my attitude plays a huge part in my interactions with everyone with whom I engage. So, in order to keep an optimistic attitude, I take the time to meditate each day.

Emily Abbas, SVP, chief consumer banking and marketing officer, Bankers Trust: It can be challenging to feel like part of a team when you aren’t with each other — so being intentional and creative in lifting up culture is essential. We created a recognition wall with sticky notes of appreciation and sent photos to those working remotely. Every time I walk by that wall it makes me smile.

Renee Hardman, CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa: Harness the spirit and the inner energy of the people around you. Live a life filled with passion. Proclaim your JOY!

In 2021, as always, challenges will continue. As leaders, we have the opportunity to set the tone. Not only will your optimistic outlook create a positive environment, it will actually create a more resilient team. And sometimes, even a joke, a sticky note or a smile can make a difference.