When it comes to leadership, hope matters. Of all the faculties one can muster for the leadership task, hope may be the most important. By definition, leaders motivate and organize people to get things done. To do that, leaders become brokers of hope. Apart from hope, both the willingness to work and the joy of living evaporate. The key, then, is for leaders to cultivate and to carry themselves with genuine hope. Hope cannot be faked. People see right through that. Want to learn how to steep yourself in hope? Read on.
My first job out of graduate school, if we can even call it a job, was to become the leader of a small, fledgling, storefront church in the inner-city of Chicago. It was a tough neighborhood, where my wife and I both lived and worked, with lots of poverty, addictive behavior, and gang violence. How tough was it? Let’s just say we couldn’t get either a newspaper or a pizza delivered to our apartment because of the reputation of the neighborhood.
We arrived at the end of June in 1979. As we pulled up in front of our apartment, with a U-Haul truck containing all of our earthly belongings, there was a commotion across the street. In the days before cell phones, people were running around, hysterically looking for help. As we soon discovered, a 10-year-old boy had leaned up against a porch railing which gave way, causing the boy to tumble two stories onto a hard, concrete sidewalk. Welcome to leadership.
Our first task, even before the first-aid drill and call for help, was to show up with hope. That’s what people needed more than anything else. This boy • someone’s son, grandson, brother, cousin, friend, and enemy (to mention only a few possibilities) • was down for the count. He was not moving. He might even be dead or dying for all we knew. No wonder people were hysterical! The least my wife and I could do was to carry ourselves like leaders.
What does that mean? Simply put, it means trusting that life has a way of working out. Even when we don’t get what we want, and we all wanted this boy to live, life still has a way of working out. The coaching framework puts it this way: “Everything is perfect, just the way it is, even when it’s obviously not.” We can hope for the best even when we are fearing the worst. To some extent, everyone does that. It’s human nature. But leaders feel that in our bones. Leaders err on the side of hope.
There is a direct connection between hope and courage. Where there is no hope, there is no courage. Given that the word “courage” comes from the Old French corage, from cuer or heart, we can drive that truth home even more powerfully by recognizing that where there is no hope, there is no heart. When hope evaporates, so does our reason for being.
Viktor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, writes about this connection in no uncertain terms in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
The prisoner who had lost faith in the future • his future — was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment – not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends.
Usually it began with the prisoner refusing one morning to get dressed and wash or to go out on the parade grounds. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. He just lay there, hardly moving. If this crisis was brought about by an illness, he refused to be taken to the sickbay or to do anything to help himself. He simply gave up. There he remained, lying in his own excreta, and nothing bothered him any more.
Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man • his courage and hope, or lack of them • and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.
Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. (pp. 74-76, 2006 edition).
That’s what hope does: it gives us a why to live for. Without hope, we cannot bear life’s mundanities let alone life’s tragedies. The people running around in Chicago that day were not only looking for assistance; they were also looking for hope. They were looking for that assurance, even if there would be dying, that everything was going to be all right.
So that was the energy we carried. Not only at that moment, but throughout our more than fourteen years in Chicago. No matter what happened, no matter how dangerous or precarious the situation, we held the energy of hope.
It wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of reasons, and there are still plenty of reasons, to give up on hope. We returned to Chicago recently for a 30-year celebration of the alternative school my wife founded. The school went out of business two years after we left. The leadership that followed my wife was not able to carry the hope. As a result, the community of teachers began to fall apart along with the fundraising that made the school possible.
So this celebration was a bittersweet event. On the one hand, there were wonderful, hope-filled memories, pictures, and videos. Everyone had great stories to tell. But there was also the unspoken recognition that what we had once was gone.
Does that mean the hope was also gone? Not hardly. For one thing, although that school closed in 1995, the same facility has been expanded and today boasts a charter school for at-risk high-school students. We took a tour of that school, meeting some of the faculty, and we felt right at home.
There may have been no technical continuity between the school my wife started and ran and the school that operates in that facility today, but there was a clear spiritual continuity. The energy and mission of the place were very similar. It still has everything to do with hope.
And then there are all the little ways in which our time in Chicago lives on in our hearts and minds today. The spirit of hope I am writing about was forged on the streets of Chicago. So many times we saw not only delightfully surprising twists of fate, we also saw powerfully moving ways in which our greatest disappointments morphed into profound opportunities for learning, growth, and change.
Hope can be confirmed in many ways; it is certainly not about just getting what you want. It may not even be about getting what you need. Sometimes, it is just about appreciating what you need in new and life-giving ways.
Great leaders cultivate this spirit of hope through both reflection-in-practice and reflection-on-practice. In other words, great leaders are mindful of hope both in the moment, as we lead, and after the fact, as we reflect on how we lead. There is no way to carry the banner of hope by accident. It takes mindful intentionality and awareness to see the perfection in every situation, especially when it’s obviously so difficult and trying.
Going back to 1979, I’m happy to report that the boy lived. He came around as we gathered around, attending to the obvious signs of injury until the paramedics arrived. It was, for us, a fateful omen. By showing up with hope, the crowd calmed down and the requisite assistance was secured.
In that case, our hope could not have been fulfilled any more wonderfully. In other cases, it was a stretch to understand what was happening in terms of hope. Every leader knows what I mean. Those are the days when we tend to lose sleep. But deep down, we never lost sight of hope. We never lost faith. We never gave up believing that a way could be made out of no way, and that, in the end, everything is going to be all right.
Coaching Inquiries: How do you cultivate and carry yourself with hope? What helps you to be hopeful even when things are not going well? What gives you the courage to get up every morning and make a contribution? Who is the most hopeful person you know? What lessons can you learn from that person? What difference do you think that would make?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I just read last week’s Provision, Nerve Matters. It has many excellent reminders for us as coaches (thank you) and reminds me of my Myers-Briggs training related to the Thinking and Feeling scale. I appreciate it very much. Thank you for writing this!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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