Friday, October 30, 2009

Hope is a Four-Letter Word

A few weeks ago as I was preparing for our company's global user conference, I was spending some time over at the Authentic Leadership blog. I was reading an article entitled "The Hopeful Leader".

The theme and spirit of the article was about trustworthy leadership, and what qualities go into a trusted leader. One of the foundational elements of a trusted leader, the author would ask us to consider, is how a leader consistently crafts and delivers messages of hope.

With all due respect and appreciation of the author's well-written piece, I'd like to offer a different opinion.

In my experience, Hope is a four-letter word.

Hope is an emotion that shares close quarters with fear and surrender.

Hope is often the convenient, favored crutch of in-action. Hope is used (occasionally with the best of intentions) by and when a leader of one, a thousand, or a billion looks to draw strength from future actions while abrogating the present through indecision.

Does hope bring people or societies closer together in pursuit of common goals? Hardly. Hope is often used to disenfranchise us. Hope asks us to voluntarily and cheerfully strip ourselves of all control of our situation and abandon responsibility for our actions (and in-actions). Hope is the ultimate "Get Out of Jail, Free" card for a leader of any organization that can offer nothing to his or her followers except self-aggrandizement.

No matter how difficult, desperate, or futile a situation may seem (from corporate and state failures to life-ending challenges and everything in between), we all have a power to choose our next actions, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem in the face of our hurdles.

Hope, while a seemingly positive state of mind, masks often self-bolstered barriers of fear, paralysis, and other problems that we'd never deal when it's most needed. Hope, in extreme cases, is an abrogation of individual responsibility. In a crises, abrogation of responsibility, even to one's self, is not a desirable leadership quality.

Inspiring leaders lead by example. Visions of better futures are, of course, absolutely essential tools of effective leaders. Leaders that passionately espouse their visions with nothing more than affirmations of their attainability, do not lead.

Hope, when recognized as an enabler of individual power, is a call to action. When backed up with examples of actions, hope can motivate a decision-maker to ultimately lead followers to a destination, and a proverbial promised land.

The leader's trail may be long and slow to traverse, but it is a path that can be followed.

Hope, by itself, is never a strategy. Hope is not a path. Hope blazes no trails.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Harvest From The Future

About this time last year (give or take a few months – I started this article in August but had to shelve it for a bit due to some extraordinary circumstances), I was writing about a crop of tomato hornworms that had replaced my crop of plum tomatoes. This year’s harvest has proven far more bountiful. Not only are the tomatoes coming in, but the basil, dill, cucumbers and zucchini have made for several batches of amazing pesto, pickles and primavera, respectively.

The harvest marks a special passing where investments in time, energy, and works are rewarded. With respect to annual crops, the fruits of labor are self-evident, and are often in such abundance that many can benefit from the rewards of a few. When looking across friendships that span a generation or more, there are similar, yet unique abundances that can emerge after many years of careful stewardship and development.

Among my closest friends is a couple who have loaned us several of their children over the years to watch them grow up, and participate in their lives. We’ve taken their children on trips, visited with them multiple times each year, and have shared many educational experiences. Two of the children are now in their late teens. The eldest, my goddaughter (more accurately, I’m her adopted godfather), is now a young woman starting her second year at University.

It’s really been a blessing over the years to have earned a place in my goddaughter’s life, as well as the lives of her siblings. Recently, it’s been extremely interesting to share parts of the world as seen through each others’ eyes in conversations and contemporary social media. (Yes, we’re friends on Facebook and we follow each other on Twitter. Fortunately I haven’t freaked-out all of my goddaughter’s meat-space friends who are half my age.) Recently, she visited with me and my wife at our home in Maine.

My goddaughter has reached a point where her life is about to get very interesting. She’s a young woman, contemplating studying abroad, and thinking very seriously about her future. She will soon be examining initial career paths in what is certainly a much more difficult world than the one I was facing when I had similar decisions to make over twenty years ago while at the same University.

Watching my goddaughter assess the world around her and make decisions that will impact not only her life in years to come, but the lives of others is fascinating. As I write this (at least when I started writing this article back in August), the decisions she’s contemplating are most likely tactical in nature: What books to read, what (if any) adjustments to make to her fall-term course schedule, etc. I’m fortunate to have a front-row seat to that process, if even for just a few moments. Some would say there’s a lot that can be shared across a generation at such an influential time in a young person’s life. I don’t disagree with that, but I’m too busy being the student.

Someday, if I’m lucky, in twenty years I may be sitting once again across from my goddaughter at a table in a bookstore, reflecting back on the choices she made today.

I can only imagine what harvests they will have produced.