What Does Hope Have to Do with Leadership?

Hope and LeadershipDuring the 13th century, King Frederick, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, conducted a most unusual experiment. He wondered what language babies would speak if no one ever spoke to them.

So he gathered together a large number of babies for his experiment. The caretakers were instructed to feed and clothe the babies, but no one was to ever speak to them.

Of course, King Frederick never learned the answer to his question. All of the babies died. Human beings cannot live without some form of human recognition or some sense of hope that things will get better.

The same is true in the business world.


1.  The cost of a seemingly hopeless work environment

Even though employees may not “die” physically in a seemingly hopeless work environment, they’ll certainly die motivationally. In a study by William M. Mercer, Inc., and reported in Compensation and Benefits Review, 25% of the workers said they were capable of doing 50% more work.

So why don’t they? They lacked hope. They didn’t feel their contribution was wanted or rewarded. In particular, almost a third of the respondents gave three reasons for not doing more: 1) they weren’t involved in the decision making, 2) they weren’t rewarded for good performance, and 3) they saw no opportunity for advancement.

What’s it like in your organization? Is everyone filled with hope and enthusiasm? Is everyone on fire, giving 120%? Or do you have some people that are  doing just enough to get by, feeling and acting somewhat hopeless?

If you answered the latter, if you’ve got some less-than-fully productive people on your team, you may be in the midst of a crisis.  A crisis of hope.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re leading an entire organization, a department, a team, or even your own family … you must remember:


2.  It is your job to keep hope alive.

Tom Malone, president of Milliken and Company, made that quite clear. He said: “I played football in college. I wasn’t very big–only 150 pounds–and I wasn’t very good. I got hurt a lot. I broke my arm once, my neck once, and my nose six times. When I tell people about it, they always ask me, ‘Why did you keep doing it?’

For the longest time I had no answer. Then one day it hit me. If there hadn’t been any fans in the stands cheering me on–my family and friends– I wouldn’t have kept on playing and trying so hard. But there were, so I did.

I agree. We’re the fans in the stands for our teammates, our employees, our customers, our friends, and our family members.  And it’s our job to keep their hope alive.

But how can we do that? Some of the best advice I ever got came from Pope John XXIII. Even though he was a most unlikely “management consultant,” he was right on when he wrote:


3. “See everything, overlook a lot, correct a little.”

For the sake of brevity, I’ll assume you do quite well on Pope John’s first two suggestions. Most people do. It’s the third area where I see too many people kill off the hope in others. They correct too many faults at the same time.

By contrast, look at how a golf pro teaches. When a person comes to him for lessons, he may have four or five basic flaws in his swing.  All of these flaws will eventually need to be corrected if he expects to hit the ball well.

However, if the golf pro told his student about all of his flaws at once, the student would probably feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Instead, the pro points out one or two of the most glaring errors. As the student corrects those and begins to hit the ball better, he’s encouraged to keep on learning more to get better and better. Then the pro gives him something else to work on.

The same is true in business. When you want people to learn new skills, it works best to work on one thing at a time.  Then you watch for every opportunity to praise their progress.

As the old saying goes, “Nothing succeeds like success.” Success is a great motivator. When employees master one step and are praised for doing so, it spurs them on to the next skill they need to master.

As you “correct a little,” as you give your feedback, make sure you use tact.  So much of the time, the hope you build or kill in others is not so much a function of what you say but how you say it.

Baltasar Gracian wrote, “Cultivate tact, for it is the work of culture…the lubricant of human relationships, softening contacts and minimizing friction.” He’s right.

The ancient Muslims used to tell a story to illustrate the importance of tact. A sultan called in one of his seers and asked how long he would live. “Sire,” said the fortune teller, “You will live to see all your sons dead.” The sultan flew into a rage and handed the fortune teller over to his guards to be executed.

He then called for a second seer and asked him the same question. “Sire,” said this fortune teller, “I see you blessed with long life, so long that you will outlive all your family.” The sultan was delighted and rewarded the fortune teller with gold and silver.

Obviously, both of the seers said the same thing. But one had tact; the other did not.

It’s not good enough to have “truth” on your side. You’ve got to know how to communicate it as well. Then, and only then, will you keep people’s hope alive, and then, and only then, will those people give all that they are capable of giving.

Final Thought:  Never deprive someone of hope. It may be all he has.