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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 24, 2020


“Hope” can sound just like wishful thinking. But at the heart of true hope is driven initiative. This week we explore four research-backed ways to build hope.



Hello and welcome to episode 75 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore four research-backed ways to build hope. “Hope” can sound just like wishful thinking. But at the heart of true hope is driven initiative. 

The concept of hope captures the human imagination. We see it reflected in popular quotes.

Martin Luther said “Everything that is done in this world is done by hope”. His namesake, Martin Luther King Jnr said “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”.

We’re encouraged to live a life focused on hope not fear. As Nelson Mandela said “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears”. 

But it’s easy to see hope as just wishful thinking. We might even accuse people of having false hope - of being unrealistic in their optimism.

The reality in life is that we are constantly barraged by opportunities and threats. Our brain is wired for survival and will always tend towards the threats. That’s why we are so amazed by stories like that of Nelson Mandela - someone whose life circumstance while in prison suggested there should be no hope, and yet he held onto a sense of hope and purpose even through tough circumstances. Indeed, this hope drove and strengthened him.

From a psychological perspective, those who research hope focus on two components:

  • The first component is Pathways - one element of hope is thinking about routes to achieve desired goals. Those with hope dream a dream, but a practical dream. For those with hope there’s a belief that they will find a way forward - that there’s always a pathway.

  • The second component is Agency - that’s having the motivation to follow these pathways. Those with hope are willing to put in the work. Agency is the belief that we can initiate and sustain action towards our goals.

The researchers find a raft of benefits from those who demonstrate these two components of hope, ranging from improved academic performance, physical health, and mental health. The research shows that Agency, in particular, really matters. Agency, that drive and motivation to keep going, is linked with later decreased demonstration of both anxiety and depression.

If you use this two part definition of hope, the researchers argue that you avoid “false hope” altogether. Having a goal, a plan, and the drive to get there is far from false hope.

Those with hope are confident they will find a way through challenge. They are also confident in their drive to pursue goals. So it’s not just trying to smash through obstacles by sheer effort. Often hope is about having confidence that you will be able to find a way around an obstacle, or perhaps develop a new goal in the process.

You can think of hope as driven initiative. Agency is the drive element , and Pathways is the initiative element. 

If I think about the TV shows and movies that appealed to me when I was younger, they featured characters who exemplified this definition of hope. I may be showing my age, but the original 1980’s TV series MacGyver comes to mind. The back story of Angus MacGyver, the main character, was always a little vague. He had a military special forces background but also an education in physics. But he was a case study in hope. Every week he overcame extraordinary odds, often by fashioning some solution out of everyday objects. 

I recall one episode where MacGyver was escaping an angry group of mercenaries in a hot air balloon when one of them shot a hole in the side of the balloon. MacGyver initially looks worried as he stares up at the gaping hole and the balloon starts to descend. But then we see, moments later, that he has somehow duct taped a map to the outside of the balloon to stop it from deflating. Cue a big smile from MacGyver and roll the credits. I remember being slightly annoyed that he taped the map to the outside of the balloon, when taping it on the inside would have worked much better. And they never did show how he made his way halfway up the outside of a hot air balloon. But, despite those nit picky details, MacGyver was a picture of hope. He was always willing to put in the work. And he was always willing to look at new pathways to get to his goal. 

Being filled with hope is a mindset you can develop. We can train ourselves to look for the hope in a situation or beyond a situation. And we can build hope in others as well. If you’ve worked for leaders with hope you will have seen just how positively it shaped the culture of your team and organisation.

As a leader we can build hope in four ways:

  1. Helping people to see not just the threats but also the opportunities. The great leaders I have had a chance to work for and alongside have helped me to always seek out the opportunities in even the darkest times. So when something goes bad, I now demonstrate greater hope by looking for opportunities that others might miss.

  2. Encouraging people to explore multiple pathways to the goal. We often develop just one plan and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work. Hope is as much about finding a way around as it is about finding a way through. It’s an overused word, but those with hope are agile in their thinking. They hold onto their plans loosely so they can find another way to the goal if needed.

  3. Sharing progress. Part of maintaining motivation is measuring and communicating the progress that is being made. We can be in such a rush that we fail to look back at our progress. Looking back helps us to see that we can indeed move forward and we can find a way.

  4. Recognising effort. Notice when people are putting in the work and persisting in the face of obstacles. We want to encourage this drive to achieve.

Our world and workplaces can really do with more hope. My challenge to you is to not just build hope for yourself, but also build hope in others.

I hope you found that helpful. I have a free webinar coming up on the morning of the 8th May in Australia, Zealand and Singapore, or the afternoon and evening of the 7th May in the US. The topic is “The Six Daily Practices of Outstanding Leaders”. Given the webinar kicks off at 10am Melbourne time, that will be the middle of the night for those in the UK and some other parts of the world, but it will be recorded. You can register at - just look for the link on the homepage. 

I’ve also put up two new recorded webinars. A 20 minute webinar on Rethinking Assertiveness, and a 30 minute webinar called Increase Your Influence.

One final thing before I go. We’re up to 75 episodes of the podcast, and I genuinely see this as a way of helping leaders to achieve results through people for good. If that sounds like a cause you want to support, please let a few friends or colleagues know about the podcast and, for bonus points, provide a rating or review for the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Thanks for your support and have a great week.



Snyder, C. R., Rand, K., King, E., Feldman, D., & Woodward, J. T. (2002). “False” hope. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 1003–1022. doi: 10.1002/jclp.10096.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.