Why Hope is the Overlooked Leadership Trait that Makes Organizations Thrive Being a hopeful leader and moving forward with a clear vision can make your team's and company's future better and give you some ideas on how to do it.

By Megan J. Shen

Key Takeaways

  • Individuals with high levels of hope have more goal-oriented strategies than those with low levels of hope.
  • Hopeful leaders acknowledge the challenges they face and those they lead, but they are motivated and hopeful that they can collaboratively find a solution.
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A common question among leaders and organizations is, "What type of leader is the most effective at helping organizations thrive?" Often, the focus is on clear leadership traits, such as emotional resilience, courage and patience. These traits are critical to the success of a leader, but there is one overlooked trait that can help propel good leaders to becoming great leaders. A trait that can help organizations thrive, especially in the current climate of rapid change and uncertainty, is hope.

One of the best and clearest definitions of hope, from the Cambridge dictionary, is "to want something to happen or to be true, and usually have a good reason to think that it might."

That second part, having good reason to believe that something good can happen, is what sets hopeful leaders apart from optimistic ones. It's obvious that pessimist leaders are demotivating to the individuals they lead because they focus on challenges, not solutions. What is less obvious, however, is that optimists are also ineffective leaders. Optimists focus on the positive but tend to overlook or de-emphasize the reality of the challenges they and their teams face. Surprisingly, like pessimists, optimists fail to focus on solutions because they believe everything will work out without focusing on how they will make that happen.

Related: Great Business Leaders Have These 8 Traits

Hopeful leaders, as this definition implies, acknowledge the challenges they face and those they lead, but they are motivated and hopeful that they can collaboratively find a solution. Leading with hope allows leaders, and thus their teams, to imagine a better future. This positive but realistic outlook creates energy that can push the team towards finding solutions to their problems and reimagining how work can be done more efficiently, effectively, and enjoyably.

Scientific research backs the claim that hope is a valuable leadership trait. Research by Arizona State University scholars notes that hope merely reflects "wishful thinking." Rather, it is a positive psychological trait that contains both willpower (or agency) and way-power (or finding pathways to success). Their research demonstrates that high-hope leaders, compared to low-hope, had more profitable work units and better satisfaction and retention rates among their subordinates.

Individuals with high levels of hope have more goal-oriented strategies than those with low levels of hope. They are also more motivated to achieve those goals. Across multiple job levels and industries, employees with high levels of hope had higher levels of job performance, even after controlling for their self-efficacy and cognitive abilities. Another research study found that management executives with high hopes produced solutions to work-related problems that were both of better quality and more frequent.

Related: Ignore the Cynics, Hope Is Your Greatest Asset

Employee retention and satisfaction are among companies' biggest and most expensive challenges today. A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that employee retention is expected to be 50-75% higher than companies have experienced previously, and it now takes 18% longer to fill those vacant roles than it did pre-pandemic. Gartner, a company focused on supporting executives, found that 65% of employees say the pandemic has made them rethink the place work should take in their lives.

Whereas an optimistic leader might think: "We can keep hiring, and it will work itself out!" in response to retention issues, the hopeful leader can reimagine how to motivate and retain employees. They can fully remodel the house rather than keep repairing the leaks. This ability is precisely because they can imagine an entirely different and better future and then set goals and implement strategies to get there. Their talents extend beyond employee retention and apply to the rapidly changing business market we find ourselves in due to rising inflation, unpredictable customer preferences, and AI/digital disruption.

Related: What Makes a Great Leader?

So, how do you become a more hopeful leader? Here are six quick tips:

  1. Name the problem or obstacle. As a hopeful leader, you must first acknowledge a problem to be fixed or an obstacle to overcome.
  2. Create a viewpoint of possibility or hope. Next, you must bring a spirit of "possibility" that you and your team can figure the problem out. The key to ensuring this viewpoint is hopeful, and not just optimistic, is to clearly articulate that you may need to iterate to find solutions and state why the solution is likely to work. It's essential that those being led feel confident that a solution is indeed possible.
  3. Set clear goals and action items to execute that vision. After making it clear, a solution can be found, and clear goals and action items on how that problem will be addressed or that obstacle will be overcome can be set. Making these SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) is best.
  4. Implement those goals/action items. Next, you must implement the solutions. Make it clear that this is the first attempt or iteration on the path to success, of which there may need to be many.
  5. Keep trying until the problem is solved or improved (make multiple iterations). If the first set of goals doesn't work, it's important to call it quits when needed and then move on to the next solution. A hopeful leader is very good at taking alternate paths when the way forward isn't working and clarifying that there is still a way forward, even if it requires a bit of trying.
  6. Celebrate successes. Of course, you should celebrate achieving the larger goal, overcoming the significant barrier or obstacle, and finding the ultimate solution. But also celebrate the small successes along the way to keep the team motivated to keep iterating to find solutions.

Remember the power of being a hopeful leader and moving forward with a clear vision that you can make your team's and company's future better and have some ideas on how to do it.

Megan J. Shen

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Associate Professor

Dr. Megan J. Shen is a social psychologist and research professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Her writing, research and speaking focus on how we can find hope and resilience through the changes, challenges, pain and losses in life and within our organizations.

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