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Optimistic Leaders get Better Results

“Positive leaders inspire people to higher performance on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement.”

– Shawn Achor, author, The Happiness Advantage


What’s more important? Being happy at work, or getting the job done? Turns out they’re inextricably linked.

Kathy McLaughlin, speaker, facilitator, coach and leader,  knows firsthand the power of optimism on outcomes. Her story of surviving cancer – twice – and organ transplant – again twice – and bouncing back to tell the tale is nothing short of miraculous. Kathy, along with her doctors, credited what she calls ‘pathological optimism’ for saving her own life.

In 1996, Kathy was the poster child for “having it all.” On BIV’s 40 Under 40 list, leading Cantel, then a multi-million-dollar business, and happily married with two children. Later that year, Kathy was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. Four months of chemo, planned around her work schedule, and she was back to usual, albeit a new normal.

Flash-forward to 2004, when the cancer came back. But this time, bloodwork revealed an autoimmune disorder had been wreaking havoc on Kathy’s liver for the previous two decades. The cancer and the disorder were seemingly having a race to take over her body. Kathy took charge of her condition, immersing herself with wellness practices and working with her physicians to find new ways to treat her cancer despite her failing liver. All the while, she was working as a partner at an executive search firm.

By 2007, things weren’t looking good for Kathy. Her liver was failing, and one morning, her kids weren’t able to wake her. Yet, it took until 2009 until she received her liver transplant, and she nearly bled to death during the operation. The transplant was immediately unsuccessful, and Kathy was placed in an induced coma, and her family given a prognosis of 48 hours.

Somehow…Kathy received and survived a second transplant and recovered slowly in hospital. 2010 was the ‘year of sadness’ for Kathy, as she struggled with grief and despair. Her team of physicians rallied her, reminding Kathy that it was her attitude that had kept them going. They felt her optimism played a large role in her successful recovery. Kathy dove deep into learning more about optimism – something she had always taken for granted – and learned of its real physical and emotional benefits.

“As I emerged from my challenges, I wondered if I had been blessed with an optimism gene, and that capability was simply not available to others who were not born that way.”

The more Kathy learned about optimism and its benefits to health and wellbeing, the more she felt inclined to share, and bring others to share her chosen path of leading optimism. She wrote her autobiography, Back to Life: One Woman's Inspiring Triumph Over a Series of Terminal Diagnoses. She founded Kathy McLaughlin & Associates, and now shares her story,  knowledge and techniques to lead with optimism and productivity with executives and working professionals, as a speaker, facilitator coach, and advisor.

Optimism vs. empathy in the workplace

When leaders lead with emotion, that’s where people stay. Going in with your ‘happy’ on works to align your team on the same path. Expressing optimism for a new challenge, a big project, and really, just the day-to-day business, is key to having others follow suit.

“We can do this!” vs “Let’s give this our best shot” set a different tone. An empathetic leadership style has good intention, but not necessarily the best outcome. Trying to empathize with a tough situation can lead to mixed messages of ability and probability of success. Rallying the troops with “this is going to be a tough week, let’s just hang in there and get done what we can” ultimately has a negative tone, and suggests a possibility that the task can’t be done.

While being happy at great news is easy, remaining positive day after day might be a stretch for those who tend toward the half-empty cup vs. the refillable one. Here’s the good news from Kathy McLaughlin’s research: only 25% of your brain is hardwired. You can retrain your brain toward a positive outlook. Like any change in our habits, at first the constant optimism must be planned and conscious, and over time, we gradually adopt to our new thinking. The rewired brain now leads with cheerful assumption – and team members feel supported as individuals and skilled employees.

5 ways optimism will improve your workplace

  • Resilient teams and individuals
  • Decreased absenteeism
  • Increased performance
  • Better bottom line
  • Engagement, retention, recruitment


Do your organization's leaders need to boost their own Optimism Quotient? The Smart Savvy Academy offers a half-day workshop: the ROI of Optimism, with Smart Savvy Academy faculty Kathy McLaughlin. Learn more about bringing this opportunity to your workplace (along with many other great workshops, leadership training programs, and coaching services), and prepare to lead with positivity!

“Kathy’s presentation was energizing and inspiring. It led to some lasting shifts in habits and a renewed interest in the company’s wellness program resulting in important workplace benefits.”

– ­Douglas Greig, CPA CMA BA | VP & CFO, Forestry Innovation Investment Ltd.


Peter.jpgPeter Reek is the Founder and President of Smart, Savvy + Associates, who are experts in helping marketing and communications leaders find people and develop teams that thrive and deliver inspiring results. As a people performance company, we specialize in finding marketing and communications talent in the Pacific North West. We also offer training programs for leaders and teams as well as options to become a certified coach or get coached.

Peter Reek

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