P is for The Positive Realist’s Approach  

People who do fine work are often positive realists. They have a positive attitude but are also good at reading reality.

Going into a situation in which they excel, they quickly see: a) the successful patterns; b) the unsuccessful patterns; c) the possible picture of success.

Bearing in mind the results it may be possible to achieve, they then aim:

To be positive realists and clarify what they can control;

To build on the positive resources available;

To do their best to achieve positive results.

Such people may take this approach in living their daily life, encouraging people or tackling a challenge. They may do so when acting as a parent, educator, leader or in another professional role.

Caring parents, for example, focus on what a child can do rather than harangue them about what they can’t do. The child can then explore, set goals and work to succeed.

Such parents also find ways to help a child to develop the resilience required to tackle difficult challenges. Children who have experienced dyslexia or other difficulties, for example, often describe how their parents took this approach.

Great leaders help their teams to build on their strengths and manage the consequences of any weaknesses. They also anticipate and manage any potential challenges.

Such leaders encourage their people to manage today’s business and also shape tomorrow’s business. They encourage, educate and enable them to achieve ongoing success.

Looking back on your life, can you think of a situation when you acted like a positive realist? You may have been retaking control of your life, encouraging people or managing a challenge.

What did you do to clarify the real results to achieve? How did you build on the positive things in the situation? If appropriate, how did you do your best to find possible solutions to challenges?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you aimed to be a positive realist.

Describe the specific things you did to aim to be a positive realist.

Describe the specific things that happened as result of taking these steps.

Positive realists are good at seeing patterns. Going into a situation in which they excel, they quickly see both the successful and unsuccessful patterns. They then aim:

To clarify the desired picture of success;

To clarify the positive things that can be built on – such as people’s strengths and successful patterns – and the possible solutions to challenges; 

To clarify the practical strategies that can be followed to achieve the picture of success. 

Such people are good at seeing successful patterns but are also good at seeing what is causing pain. They therefore act quickly to deal with any immediate problems or stop any haemorrhaging.

Positive realists then focus on helping people to achieve ongoing success. One approach they use is to build on the positive parts of people, teams and organisations. They also help people to find possible solutions to challenges.

Different people apply this approach in different ways with individuals, teams and organisations. Here are some examples of how it can be translated into action.

Working With Individuals

During the past 50 years I have worked with thousands of people who wanted to achieve their personal or professional goals. The aim has been to provide practical tools they can use to achieve their picture of success.

Sometimes this has involved helping them to manage pressing challenges. Sometimes it has involved helping them to follow practical strategies that produce sustainable success.

One approach I have used is strengths coaching. Let’s explore how this works in practise.

Setting The Scene

Imagine that you are running a session with a person who has asked for your help. The first step is to create an encouraging environment in which they feel welcome and at ease.

Clarifying the topics they want to explore, you can explain what you can and can’t offer. You can then make clear working contracts.

Moving on to the first topic the person wants to explore, you can clarify the real results they want to achieve. If appropriate, you may be able to offer some practical tools they can use to get some early successes.

Sometimes you may immediately help a person to focus on solutions to a challenge. On other occasions it can be useful to clarify the strengths they can use to achieve success.


You can clarify the positive aspects of person’s personality. Here are some themes it can be useful to explore.

What are the person’s strengths? What are their successful patterns? Looking back at their positive history, when have they tackled a similar challenge successfully?  

What were the principles they followed? How did they translate these into action? How can they use their strengths and follow their successful patterns to achieve their picture of success?

Imagine you have clarified some of the person’s inner resources. It is then time to move on to the next stage.


Let’s return to the specific results the person wants to achieve. Here are some themes it can be useful to explore for clarifying their strategy.

What is the person’s specific goal? What are the key strategies they can follow to give themselves the greatest chance of success? What is the support they need?

What are the potential difficulties they may face? How can they prevent such difficulties happening? How can they manage such difficulties if, despite their best efforts, these do happen?

Imagine you have worked with the person to help them clarify their strategy. It is then time to move on to the next stage. 


If appropriate, look ahead and help the person to translate their strategies into a clear action plan. Here are some themes it can be useful to explore with the person. 

How can they keep following their chosen strategies? How can they do superb work? How can they get some early successes and encourage themselves on the journey? 

How can they keep reading reality? How can they clarify: a) What is working; b) What they can do better and how? How can they find solutions to challenges?

How can they manage their energy properly? How can they buy time to think when necessary? How can they finish properly and achieve their picture of success? 

There are many models for helping a person to build on the positive parts of their personality. This section provided an introduction to strengths coaching with individuals. Let’s move on to working with groups of people.

Working With Organisations

Positive realists do their due diligence before embarking on a venture. They then do their best to set up things to succeed.

Imagine you have been invited to lead an organisation. Before taking the role it will be important to do your research. This involves clarifying:

The specific results you will be asked to deliver – the picture of success;

The specific positive and challenging things that are happening in the organisation and its area of activity;

The specific positive and potentially challenging things that may happen in the future;

The specific authority and autonomy you will have to deliver the desired picture of success;

The success rating you would give – on a scale 0-10 – regarding the chance of delivering the picture of success.

Imagine that you have done your due diligence. Bearing in mind the things you can control, you rated the chance of success as 7/10.

You can then clarify the practical things you can do to improve the chances of success. These include aiming:

To clarify your strategy for delivering the picture of success; 

To make crystal clear contracts with the Board about: a) The results to be delivered; b) The authority and autonomy you will have to deliver these results; c) The things you will do to proactively keep the Board informed about the progress toward achieving the picture of success;  

To build on the positive and professional people in the organisation;

To give the other people a chance to decide if they want to contribute to delivering success;

To get some quick successes that will reassure the Board and give you freedom to implement your chosen strategy for achieving success.

Imagine that you have taken these steps and have made clear contracts with the Board. You have the authority and autonomy required to deliver the goods. Let’s consider the next steps you may want to take.

Giving People The Big Picture

Good leaders aim to build a positive environment in which motivated people can achieve peak performance. They also recognise that it is important to give people the big picture.

This is especially important when working with knowledge workers who like to understand the context. They can then see their part in helping the organisation to achieve its goals.

Such leaders therefore communicate the organisation’s purpose, principles and picture of success. They then give people time to reflect and decide if they want to work towards achieving the goals.

If people choose to opt-in, they make clear contracts about their best contributions. People then perform superb work and do their best to achieve the picture of success.

Imagine that you have given people the chance to reflect and decide if they want to contribute towards achieving the goals. Looking around, it has become apparent that people are choosing either:

To be positive and professional; 

To be neutral; 

To be negative or unprofessional.

How do you want to work with the different kind of people? In the old days organisations often concentrated on turning-around the negative people, but that did not work.

Another approach is to build on the people who choose to be positive and professional. Let’s explore some approaches to focusing on the different kinds of people.

The Positive People

“Reward the behaviour you want repeated,” is the motto, so encourage the positive people. They are the engine, but they also need support.

Such people frequently volunteer for tasks and do fine work, but they also get exhausted. You can encourage them:

To build on their strengths and make their best contributions to the organisation;

To act as positive models for other people in the organisation;

To produce success stories that demonstrate the professional standards required for building a successful organisation.

One soccer manager I worked with took this approach. Taking over an under-achieving club, he was appalled by the attitudes of some key players. They seemed to spend more time at the tattoo parlour than at the training ground.

The manager brought in three top professional players who could lead the dressing room. They had credibility with the other players and became what are known as ‘cultural architects’.

Acting as good models, they demonstrated the required professional standards. They also acted as the manager’s arm on the field. They inspired and urged the other players to perform at their best.

Good leaders often follow a similar path in organisations. They build on the positive people and encourage them to make their best contributions. Such people spread positive energy across the organisation. 

The Neutral People

Some people may appear neutral or guarded. There can be many reasons for their behaviour. They may have seen new leaders come in before, make big promises and then fail to deliver.

Whatever their reasons, however, at some point it is vital for them to opt-in. Otherwise the organisation is trying to climb a mountain with some people who are only partly committed.

Such people can make a good contribution if they choose to become positive and professional. They must each make their own decisions, of course, but you can increase the chances of them choosing to give their best.

One approach is to spend time with these people to ensure that:

They know the organisation’s specific goals and strategy;

They are given a sense of ownership in implementing their part of the strategy;

They are given the support they need to do their job and deliver success.

Different leaders do this in different ways. One leader who took over the European arm of a multi-national company explained their approach in the following way.

“I toured every country in the European region and did 2 hour sessions in which I literally met every person.

“Meeting groups of around 20 people, I talked about last year’s achievements, before outlining the goals for the next year.

“I used a flip chart and a few slides, but the tone was mainly conversational. 

“Looking at the challenges ahead, I invited people to ask their questions and answered these as honestly as possible.

“Finally I reiterated the organisation’s strategy and outlined what we could all do to get some quick successes. People seemed to appreciate the sessions.”

Sounds hard work? Perhaps, but it can be harder if leaders do not connect with people. Given the right kind of support, people will often do superb work and go that extra mile.

Another approach is to have one-to-one sessions with people. This is often more suitable when taking over a relatively small team because of the numbers involved. Some leaders adapt the approach, however, to meet with the key people in larger organisations.

You can begin by explaining that you would like to meet each person for an individual session. Explain that before the session you would like each person to do some pre-work.

Say that you obviously have a view of the team’s goals, strategy and road to success. You would, however, also like to get their in-put.

Many leaders I have worked with have used this approach when taking over teams. It provides an introduction to the people and their potential contributions. It can also indicate which people may or may not want to give their best to the team.

Invite each person to complete the following piece of work and send this to you before the session. Below is the pack that you can send to people.

Imagine that you have met with individuals. Some people who were initially guarded or neutral may choose to opt-in. If they choose not deliver the required professional standards, you may then want to find others who are prepared to deliver the goods.

The Negative People

People who are negative or unprofessional need to make a decision. Do they want to be part of the organisation or not? You can again outline:

The Organisation’s Purpose – the specific thing it aims to do; 

The Organisation’s Principles – the specific professional standards that people are be encouraged to follow to achieve the purpose;

The Organisation’s Picture Of Success – the specific results it aims to deliver by a certain date.

Give people the opportunity to consider whether they want to opt in and make a positive contribution. They need to follow up with deeds rather than words. If they choose not to do so, then there are consequences.

The soccer manager mentioned earlier took this approach and explained the professional deal to his players. This was along the following lines.

The Professional Deal 

The club’s responsibility is to communicate the strategy, provide a supportive environment and do everything possible to achieve success.

The players’ responsibility is to follow the required professional standards and do everything possible to help the team to achieve success.

The manager held one-to-one sessions with each of the players. They were asked whether they would like to deliver the required professional standards and contribute towards achieving the goals.

If so, they were also asked what kind of support they would like to help them to do their best. Sometimes the support was professional, sometimes it was personal.

Many of the players were open to developing the mental side of their game. So they spent time with professionals who helped them to develop skills in that area.

Some players said they wanted to be part of the journey, but it was no more than words. They quickly got the message that the club was serious. Here is one example.

The manager explained that the daily training sessions on the field started at 10.00 sharp. Everybody should be warmed up by then and ready to go.

On the second day a star player arrived on the field at 10.01. In his view, being one minute late was not late. This was a pattern he had established under the previous regime.

On this occasion, however, he was in for a shock. He was immediately excluded from the session. The manager told him:

“We have certain professional standards. These are there for a reason, because we rely on each other each day. Training is also vital, because this is when we do the work to prepare for matches.

“We believe in people developing good habits. We don’t expect people to turn up one minute after kick off during a match. The same rule applies to training.

“Let me know when you are ready to meet those professional standards.”

The manager’s strategy worked. He built on the players who wanted to follow the agreed principles. The player who chose not to do so left for elsewhere. Later that season the club went on to win its first-ever domestic trophy.

There are many ways to be a positive realist. One approach is to start by clarifying the real results to achieve. It is then:

To build on the positive things in a situation;

To find possible solutions to the other things;  

To do your best to achieve the desired positive results.

Looking ahead, can you think of a situation where you may want to take these steps in your own way? This could be in your personal or professional life.

You may want to do so when living your daily life, shaping your future or tackling a challenge. You want to do so when acting as a parent, educator, leader or in another professional role.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may aim to be a positive realist. 

Describe the specific things you can do then to aim to be a positive realist. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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