Navigating Through a Crisis: Harnessing the Power of Optimism 

11 April 2024

In over 20 years of research, the emotional skill of Optimism has shown up time and time again to be the single greatest predictor of success in life. Optimistic people regularly outperform people at work, they score higher on aptitude tests, they recover more quickly from illness, and they are better able to navigate their way through a crisis. The good news is that Optimism is a skill that can be learned and developed.  

From a leadership perspective, possessing strong levels of Optimism can enable leaders to see the big picture and have a vision of where they are going. This is not just ‘the glass is half full,’ ‘always look on the bright side of life,’ or ‘rose-colored glasses’ approach to life. Optimism is a life strategy and involves a way of sensing opportunities, looking over the horizon and developing a deep emotional courage and resilience in the face of setbacks. This emotional competency is critical during a crisis.    

Optimism is often dismissed by cynics as false hope or a lack of realism. But, far from being naïve or having a Pollyannaish view of the world, optimists have a particular way of seeing reality – they can generate energy and a positive mood that can be picked up and harnessed by others. 

Perhaps Melinda Gates captured the strength of this perspective best in a commencement address delivered to Stamford graduates. After visiting a TB hospital in Soweto where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was working to supply the technology to increase survival rates, she commented: 

Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better – that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away.” 

For an optimist, it makes no sense to look away. We can always do better, limit the damage, find an alternative solution, rebuild what has been destroyed. 

How to Develop Optimism  

Optimism is developed by the way you talk to yourself inside your head – what psychologists call your explanatory style. 

Optimists see problems as temporary, controllable, and linked to specific situations, rather than permanent and intractable. The way you talk to yourself will not only determine how you feel, but also the range of options you are capable of seeing as you move forward. As you work your way through a crisis, making sure your self-talk is constructive, helpful and rational will be crucial to enable you to come out the other side stronger, and transition back into normality.  

The good news is that, although your explanatory style has become a habit over time, you can learn to change this mindset. 

How you interpret an event is under your control and involves three key strategies: 

  1. look for the benefit  
  1. seek the valuable lesson  
  1. focus on the task 

Strategy 1 – Look for the Benefit 

Most people tend to spend too much time thinking about what goes wrong in their lives and not enough time considering what goes right. In most of what happens to us, however difficult, there usually will always be something of benefit we can extract from the experience. 

So next time you face a crisis, ask yourself: how have I benefited from this situation so far?  And if you don’t think you have benefited yet, think about how you might like to tell the story of the crisis to people five years from now. What would you like to tell them in relation to how you benefited?   

Most people have experienced the anxiety and disappointment of a setback. But optimists have learnt to limit the damage by containing the disappointment and refusing to let it pervade the rest of their life. 

Instead, they cultivate an attitude of gratitude for all the good that is still in their lives – your strengths, your health, the people you know, the skills you have, and resources you have access to.  

Strategy 2 – Seek the Valuable Lesson 

One characteristic that generally stands out in optimistic people is the ability to maintain a hopeful attitude by learning from the lessons of a previous experience to improve their situation. 

So instead of perceiving difficult situations as completely negative, where you punish yourself over errors of judgments, choose instead to focus on the valuable lessons to be learned from the experience. 

Train yourself to respond to negative situations with the thought, ‘What can I learn from this situation that will make me better the next time I face a setback?’  

Strategy 3 – Focus on the Task 

You know what it’s like, once you face disappointment the overwhelming emotions of fear or regret or anger can sometimes paralyze you and limit your options going forward.  

Optimists instead choose to focus on the specific tasks that need to be completed to change a situation and move it forward. 

The key challenge for each of us when we face a crisis is how we let go of those difficult emotions that frustrate and disappoint us and keep us pinned in negative ways of thinking. So, when something negative happens, rather than allow yourself to be consumed by difficult emotions such as anxiety, frustration, or anger, focus instead on the immediate tasks that are within your control, and that need to be done to move forward.  


Get in touch here to learn how our coaching services can help you build Optimism to enhance your wellbeing and performance and successfully navigate a crisis. 

About the author:  

Joe Davis, CPsychol is a BPS Chartered Performance Psychologist and Senior Consultant at Ground + Air. He is a peer-reviewed author and enjoys sharing human performance insights to help people enhance the quality of their life. Joe is passionate about helping people thrive – both personally and professionally – and has worked extensively with high performing individuals, teams, and organisations from business, sport, and esports.