Press release:The future of leadership in 2021 - leaders who instill hope

Leadership is a centuries-old theme, but what would we be without it?

Here we are standing at the beginning of July. Already six months into what we hoped would be a different and new year. Not much has changed from 2020 to 2021 – many of us are still working from home, we are still wearing masks and avoiding close contact with people, hopefully? There has been little shift in the reality we know due to Covid-19.

We are feeling the emotional impact of Covid-19 creeping in and the loss we have to bear is becoming heavier by the day. The loss of loved ones, the loss of deeper social connection, the loss of economic stability, and possibly the loss of hope.

Anxiously waiting for our president to take his place behind the wooden podium proudly displaying our national emblem, a well-known picture to South Africans by now, the realization of the importance of great leadership struck anew.

Leadership is a centuries-old theme, but what would we be without it? Could you imagine a (Covid-stricken) world with no leadership? It made sense to ask the question – what will successful leadership look like for us now and in the future?

As the years come and go, leadership adapts to the time. The time we are in now is certainly difficult to compare with any other year in the past. Yes, there have been pandemics before with the earliest record of a pandemic dating back to 430 B.C during the Peloponnesian War. But the environment of our everyday existence is largely different compared to the 1918-1920’s with the Spanish Flu outbreak and even more so compared to the grim period of 430 B.C. We have modern medicine and cutting-edge technology at our fingertips.

The theory of leadership also dates back to the 1920s when management as a science grasped the interest of many. One of the key focus areas was the discovery of how people become leaders and the possible existence of common characteristics among them. A researcher of this topic, Cohen (1990) describes leadership as “an art of impacting followers to their maximum performance in achieving tasks, goals or accomplishing particular projects.”

After years of research, it has been established that there are indeed certain skills or characteristics unique to a (successful) leader. Forbes published an article titled: “5 Common Traits of Top Leaders” in November 2020 painting a leader as someone who is accountable, open to taking big risks, quick to take action, and never completely satisfied. In addition, Forbes added the ability to motivate as one of the five common traits.

This is the point where we’d like to pause. The ability to motivate.
The past few months have been unpredictable and unprecedented. It has been tough on the people, but it has been equally as tough on our leaders. Leaders were more interconnected to the world in both their efforts to gain information that will assist them in staying up to date with global trends, as well as keeping in touch with employees that might be scattered across cities and provinces.

Brand new issues and concerns required of leaders to dive deep into their innovation and creative problem-solving pockets to navigate the uncertainty. Choosing what is best for the company while also trying to juggle what is good for the people.

It’s easy to become trapped in this new world. A world is synonymous with defeat, loss, and immense heartache. So how do leaders start to Re-build hope?

Notice how it’s about re-building hope and not merely build hope. We all have innate hope – circumstances, however, dims its light which makes it harder to find.

Hope is not a new concept and surely has been studied from a psychological perspective. In 1991, Charles R. Snyder and a few of his colleagues constructed what is known as the Hope Theory. The theory suggests that there are two dimensions to hope:
1. Pathways
a. Pathways refer to the routes to achieve the desired goals. Those with hope dream a dream, but a practical dream. Those with hope have the belief that they will find a way forward, that there is always a pathway.
2. Agency
a. Agency is the motivation to follow the 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.

In essence, hope is a beautiful combination of the will to get to where you want to be and the different ways to get there.

The researchers, Suzanne J. Peterson and Kris Byron from Arizona State University and Georgia State University respectively, listed incredible benefits in their abstract titled “Exploring the role of hope in job performance: Results from four studies.” found in those who demonstrate hope, ranging from improved academic performance to better physical and mental health.

If you use this two-part definition of hope the researchers argue that you avoid false hope altogether. Hope has been sketched as a feel-good emotion, quite naïve of mind. It’s everything but that – it’s a powerful cognitive motivational system. Those with hope are confident that they will find a way through challenge and difficulty, and they are equally confident in their drive to pursue goals, because having goals is not enough.

It’s not merely about smashing through obstacles with sheer effort, but often hope is about having the confidence that you’ll be able to find a way around the obstacle.

One can therefore think about hope as driven initiative. Agency is the drive element and pathways are the initiative. Being filled with hope is a mindset that you can develop. We can train ourselves to look for the hope in a situation or far beyond a given situation, and we can build hope within others as well.

Leaders can build hope in the following four ways:

1. Helping people see not only the threats but the opportunities
• Leaders have the power to transfer the skill of seeing hope and opportunity in challenging times to their employees.

• Create dedicated timeslots where the focus of the discussion is exploring the pro’s and cons of the current situation. Provide your team with the opportunity to voice their concerns, but put a limit to this discussion. Then challenge the team to identify the hidden opportunities that lie underneath.

Tell them “For the next 20 minutes we will provide an opportunity for the team to voice their concerns, frustrations and fears about the current challenge, but then we will stop and force ourselves to shift our mindsets to see the opportunities lurking underneath.”

Allow each team member to voice 1 thing they are most concerned about and limit the amount of airtime given to each person. Then focus on using various ideation techniques to encourage your team to see different perspectives and opportunities that might arise out of the challenging situation.

This approach allows your team to voice what they might be feeling or struggling with, while ensuring that you don’t digress into a pity party. Forcing the group to activate their creative brains, and explore different perspectives will activate huge amounts of energy and hope in your team.

• Make a habit of asking your team the following questions:
i. What can we learn from this challenge?
ii. What are the possible opportunities coming out of this challenge now and in future?
iii. How could we prepare to leverage these opportunities now and in the future?
iv. How could we be different in the way we approach this challenge? Could we use a different mindset or optimistic perspective as a competitive advantage over our competitors who are in the same situation?
v. How have others successfully navigated similar challenges in the past?

2. Encouraging people to explore multiple pathways to the goal
• We often develop just one plan and get frustrated when it doesn’t work. Hope is as much about finding a way around as it is finding a way through. It is an overused concept, but those with hope are agile in their thinking. They cling to their plan loosely so that they can adjust their efforts if need be.

• Ask your team (and yourself) the following:
i. How have others approached similar situations in the past?
ii. How would children think about this situation if they were to find an approach? (95 percent of children have genius scores on divergent thinking compared to 5 percent of adults, so we can definitely learn a thing or two from them in how we approach challenges)
iii. Who thinks very differently to me? How would they approach the situation? Consider asking these individuals for their views.
iv. What wild perspectives can we think of? Give your team a 20 minute “no bad idea” timeslot where no perspectives or ideas ar deemed as “bad”. Generate as many “wild” perspectives as possible and see what comes up.

3. Sharing progress

  • Vincent van Gogh said “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together”. Part of maintaining motivation is measuring and communicating the progress that has been made. We can be in such a rush that we fail to look back and celebrate our progress. Looking back helps us to see that we can indeed move forward.

  •  Make sure your team and individual goals are broken up into smaller “bite-size chunks” and allow ways for the team to discuss the progress they make on each of these smaller steps as they move towards the bigger goal. This is where regular stand-ups or team check-in rhythms are extremely useful and... you guessed it hope to generate.

4. Recognising effort

  •  Find ways to celebrate small wins in your team. Never has this become more important than during the pandemic. Find ways to recognise your team’s efforts (small as they may be). Use team dashboards to visually display the progress the team has made, but beware: make sure your dashboards pick up each progressive step forward, so that it does indeed motivate others to move forward.
  •  Notice when people are putting in the work and persisting in the face of obstacles. Even if they don’t meet their targets fully or make mistakes, recognise the right behaviours when you see them. Recognise discretionary effort, creativity, generosity, collaboration, creativity and divergent thinking.
  •  Even better, encourage your team to recognise these winning behaviours in each other to create a culture of recognition in your team. Create a 5-minute timeslot in your meetings where you give the team opportunity to recognise what they appreciate about a colleague or where they are seeing excellence (in behaviour or outcome).

Our world and workplaces can do with more hope. We can inspire our employees to shift their focus to see the glimmering (but very real) prospects on the horizon.

How will you focus on re-establishing hope for the future in increasingly turbulent times?

We’d like to be part of your journey. Contact us to support you in your leadership development or team development journey. We can help you enhance the functioning, hope, and creativity of your team.