The role of hope in leadership and storytelling

Last week I sat on a panel at an event organized by the Association for Managers of Innovation, a group that was new to me. The topic was re-framing hope.

Now, I have to confess that, up until that day, hope wasn't something I'd thought a lot about. Actually, I've probably thought more about hopelessness, as the backdrop for much of the work I've done in my career, to tackle issues like suicide, addiction, species loss and climate change.

Of course, being a Lord of the Rings nerd, the first thing that came to mind was the character Samwise Gamgee, Frodo's sidekick throughout his Middle Earth adventure. To me, Sam embodies hope. No matter how hard things get, he always finds the will to keep going. At one point in the story, when all seems lost, he gives this amazing speech.

β€œIt's like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going because they were holding on to something." "What are we holding onto Sam?" Frodo asks. "That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.”

Through Sam, author JR Tolkien demonstrates perfectly the role of hope in storytelling. Unless you're writing a tragedy, hope is the fuel that keeps every hero going. There is no story without it. The same can be said for innovation. Unless a leader can conceive, articulate and inspire hope, they'll never be able to engage others in their journey.

Here are a few insights about re-framing hope in a seemingly hopeless world that bubbled up during the session.

  • For me, hope is a story we tell ourselves about how life will be better in the future. And we control those stories. Hope also comes from faith in something – which could be ourselves, each other, science, art, religion, community – anything really.
  • Artist and co-panellist Patricia Streeper shared that hope starts from within and is unique to each of us - whether from faith, spirituality, art or an undying belief in people.
  • Session host Karyn Zuidinga was struck by insights from Jessica Mulholland about the role community plays in creating and sustaining hope.
  • While her co-host Jennifer Lieberman noted that hope is a practice to cultivate. And that building a tribe of fellowship with others doing the hard, messy work of change is critical to success.

Given the power of hope to motivate action, it's worth spending a few minutes thinking about the role it plays in your work as an innovation leader. Why do you and your people need hope? How do you create and nurture it? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you inspire it in others?

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