ON DEC 3, 1908, explorer Ernest Shackleton recorded: “We reached the base of the mountain which we hoped to climb in order to gain a view of the surrounding country....From the top of this ridge, there burst upon our view an open road to the south, for there stretched before us a great glacier...stretching away south.”
From this vantage point, Mr Shackleton and his south-polar party gained their first sight of the glacier that provided the route to the polar plateau and the South Pole itself.
The hill that provided this vantage point, and for the promise it provoked, was named Mount Hope by Mr Shackleton.
Every leader has the responsibility and privilege of taking his team, sometimes clambering, over difficult and challenging environments (whether they are social, emotional or financial) and bringing them to a point where hope is stirred, courage nurtured and energy ignited.
Napoleon’s saying, “Leaders are dealers in hope”, encapsulates the unwritten but expected trait of all who lead. They are the ones who must generate and point to hope.
The hope quotient
Nothing distinguishes a leader and persuades others to remain followers as much as the decisiveness of vision, encouragement and affirmation of achievement that creates a sense of hope.
Managers and leaders are competent at reciting most measurable statistics to do with their business.
They can recite their ROI (return on investment), ROA (return on assets), returns per sq m, growth in turnover, profits per staff member and so on quite easily.
However, ask them about the “hope quotient” of the team, and their eyes glaze over with bewilderment, wondering what on earth the relevance of such a question is.
Too many have never learnt that a single sincere word of affirmation is more effective than many threats or promises of money.
Given the adverse effects that the absence of inspiration or hope have upon the mental and emotional competencies of people, one would imagine that training in the importance of minimising despair, discouragement and anything that unduly creates these conditions would be among the primary lessons in leadership development.
The danger of discouragement
Important as it is to develop and maintain a sense of hope, it is equally crucial that hope is not dashed or treated carelessly.
Many years ago, King Solomon said: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
Who among us has not felt the utter despair of deferred or dashed aspirations?
Dr Viktor Frankl, a prisoner of the notorious Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, wrote about the serious consequences of continuous and absent hope: “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.”
He goes on to say that the medical records of Auschwitz showed that the death rates in the week between Christmas 1944 and New Year’s Day 1945 were awful.
They “increased in the camp beyond all previous experience”. In his opinion (camp doctor’s), the explanation for this did not lie in the harder working conditions or in the deterioration of their food supplies or a change of weather or new epidemics.
“It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home by Christmas. As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost hope and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.” (Excerpt from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, page 97.)
The readers of this article are unlikely to ever produce that kind of disappointment in their followers.
But responsibility, innovation and productivity do die when discouragement and attitudes “of what’s the use/why bother” prevail in companies.
Catch them doing good work
The remarkable truth is that hope and encouragement are usually developed in the most understated and natural of circumstances.
An informal discussion about a staff member’s after-hours interests, asking about his family, affirming the value of his contribution and inviting his input in a discussion have a way of making the person feel included and thereby significant.
The power of encouraging people is grossly underestimated.
Stop and consider the effect that a sincere and well-expressed compliment had on you the last time you received one. The boost of confidence, the increased energy and the renewed determination was beyond remarkable.
The wasted and neglected opportunities by many leaders to “catch” their people doing good work is a serious managerial deficiency. It is inexcusable.
Frankl, quoting the philosopher Nietzsche, makes the point that “he who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how’”.
The privilege of organisational leadership, in the arena of business, is to be the prime articulator of that “why” and then to provide the fuel of encouragement and inspiration for its achievement.