Hope is not the longest word in our rich language, but it has a profound meaning. Hope is the driving force that leads mankind to a better and brighter future. It is the foundation our dreams are built on. Everyone who has a goal in life, everyone who wants to give their life meaning, needs a form of hope.
Hope is intrinsically linked to our conviction that we can make a difference, that we can make a positive contribution to the world. After all, there is one thing that is certain: people have an innate desire to evolve and develop, not just survive. Although the impact is not always immediately visible, eventually everyone will have made at least a small difference in the world. At the macro level, these changes bring about not only stability and predictability, but also growth, well-being, and prosperity.
Hope in times of crisis
But what if the unthinkable happens? What if the future is unsettled and the times become uncertain? How does a crisis, small or large, affect people’s hopes? And what impact does a crisis have on individuals?
In the worst-case scenario, a crisis deprives us of any sense of hope and produces an overwhelming feeling of pessimism and distrust. Long-term lack of certainty and poor prospects can trigger a negative downward spiral. Fortunately, history teaches us that hope is deeply anchored in the human experience and cannot be simply dismissed. A striking example of this is the extensive bombardment of the civilian population during the Second World War. The underlying strategy was to ruthlessly crush civilian morale so that the people being bombarded would abandon their hopes and their fighting spirit. Although many buildings were destroyed and the bombing claimed countless victims, hope remained - on both sides of the front line. The bombings soon became part of people’s daily reality.
But of course, hope takes a solid hit in times of crisis. People can start to feel overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness and loss of control over their own situation. It is at that moment, more than ever, that there is a need for solid leadership to show the way and to keep hope alive.
Pleasant surprises can also be experienced during a crisis. Adversity can push people to find purpose and meaning in life. Communities re-engage and develop a joint response to the crisis. Younger generations rise up and give older generations a sense of hope for the future. Companies take responsibility and make extra efforts to use their expertise and economic strength to help society emerge from the crisis. Solutions to ancient, structural problems are finally found. Consider for a moment the judicial and police reforms in Belgium, following the atrocities committed by Marc Dutroux.
Role of (business) leaders: creating hope for others
Whenever hope wanes, greater leadership is needed from across society. In a crisis, new heroes often appear to take the lead and act as a source of inspiration and motivation for others. But what does this leadership look like? Let’s consider the business world as an example. What role can business leaders play when the going gets tough? What should business leaders do when hope is at stake? Hope is our last line of defence, so it better be well managed.
1. A culture of commitment
First and foremost, this requires a genuine commitment. Commitment with both internal and external stakeholders. A commitment that goes beyond “we are proud of your accomplishments” or “we understand this difficult situation”. This commitment should be a natural part of the corporate culture - it is not something that can simply be launched whenever a crisis arises. It is particularly in times of crisis that your prior commitment ensures that you as a company can withstand the effects of the crisis. That is why you should try to ensure that decisions taken today or for the longer-term always reflect the interests of your stakeholders. Creating a shared sense of meaning, with a spotlight on social relevance is what matters.
There are a number of prerequisites that need to be in place if you are to establish a culture of commitment. The first step is to remove hierarchical barriers that can stand in the way of open and transparent communications. Employees should have the opportunity to express their concerns and have the feeling that these concerns are being addressed. In addition, a culture of commitment entails giving people the flexibility and confidence they need to do their job to the best of their abilities. But they also need room to make mistakes and to develop further. Finally, people need the appropriate support, especially when they are struggling on a personal level. Consider, for example providing extra support if an employee is experiencing burn-out or returning after a longer absence.
2. Keeping an eye on the future
When hope is on the line, leaders are expected to remain focused on the future, to make clear what is yet to come and how everyone can contribute to a brighter tomorrow. The important thing is to generate enthusiasm for a positive future to overcome a negative downward spiral. This is achieved by encouraging open-mindedness and the desire for learning at all levels of your company. This is how you attract people who dare to question everything and enjoy doing so. These are the elements that keep us going and make us dream of what is still to come...
3. High-visibility leaders
Leaders must take charge in crisis situations. They should remain visible and accessible within the organisation - and often enough, they will have to dig into the real work being done by their employees. In addition, transparent communication is critical, and leaders must have the courage to be vulnerable. This is because even leaders do not have an instant answer to every issue. A more important aspect at times like these is to demonstrate that everyone is working together to find a solution. This approach can turn leaders into a beacon of hope, trust, and connection.
There will always be times when we are in danger of losing control and we have to rely on others to make a positive difference. But “hope” is not an isolated strategy. Hope is not a panacea meant to make people feel better in the short term. It is more of a by-product that comes into being when you make a positive difference in the lives of people who trust you. Both in crisis situations and in normal circumstances. It is our moral duty to turn hopeless situations into hopeful ones.
Because hope is what leads us beyond our deepest fears.
Bart De Smet