How Responsible leaders keep hope alive

How Responsible Leaders Keep Hope Alive

I have been following my daughter, Grace, over the past few weeks giving talks on the structural problems causing the inequality and injustice in our economic and political systems. She also has ideas as to what we can do about them.

What struck me when sitting in the audience is the fine balance of hope and despair that people seem to manifest as they respond to her talks. It seemed that what Grace was providing is some kind of hope.  Whether it be older people worried about their children’s future or younger people stuck in rented accommodation, working all hours in a soul-destroying job, there is plenty of despair around.  That’s to say nothing of the global political and economic situation. And, contrary to many rather superficial articles on hope, these situations cannot be rationalized away by cultivating positive thoughts or focusing on the present or writing daily in a gratitude journal.  These may work in the short term but they are not sustainable responses to what are profoundly structural issues characterized by deep injustice and inequality.

Five sources of hope in leadership

Photo by Ronak Valobobhai on Unsplash

Five Ways of Cultivating Hope

So how can we cultivate hope in an era where people have lost trust in our systems, our leaders and even themselves.

I too tend to lose hope – partly because the problems are so complex and partly because I tend to have a bit of a depressive personality. The researcher Carol Graham linked rising levels of hopelessness in the US to increasing levels of suicide, drug use and susceptibility to conspiracy theories.  So hope is important.  Here are five ways that I found hope as I reflected on the past week and on Grace’s talks.


  1. Responsible Leaders Bring Hope

The power of responsible leaders is that it hope is manifested in a living, breathing person who themself has hope. Just seeing young leaders with decent values, offers people hope that someone sees the world in the same way that they do AND they are doing something about it. If you are a responsible leader, just being there, standing up and being present to people offers hope that people are fighting for a better future – whether in business or politics. We can’t all be leaders. It takes a range of skills and qualities to be a leader, one of which is pure stamina.  Many people are simply not motivated to lead but they want to support good people who do. So just being you is a great source of hope for others and it’s important to remember that.


  1. Accepting vs Resisting the Present

It may be odd to say this, but so many people expend a lot of energy bemoaning things are the way they are. The workplace is stuffed full of poor leaders who have been promoted for compliance and conformity and lead through fear. Politics is stuffed full of egotistical, ‘social dominants’ who think they are superior to others and are entitled to more power, wealth and influence. The global stage presents leaders who seem more like psychopaths and narcissists than great leaders. This has always been the case and probably always will be.

This is the human condition. Our task is not to waste energy bemoaning it but to offer a counter balance. Okay, we cannot force through change we want to see (see the next point) but we can push back, stand up, and represent the good in humankind. Just so others can see it’s there!

  1.   Complexity Theory Provides Hope

Complexity theory offers hope that our actions affect others

Complexity theory offers hope that our actions affect others

I am no scientist, but I used to enjoy teaching my students at university about complexity science and how it relates to change. In brief, in a complex system, the future emerges from the complexity of the interactions between the small component parts. This future cannot be planned, controlled or predicted because a change initiated by a small component part (say a conversation between two people in an organisation) can make a huge difference to the eventual outcome.

I used to illustrate this by explaining how a series of strikes in the Baltic port of Gdansk (then the Lenin shipyard) in 1968 and 1970 led eventually to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the political world order in 1989!  You can dispute this narrative and there were lots of forces at play in this complex system. However, the strikes in the 60s and 70s were led by Lech Walesa who fought against the communist leader General Jarulzelski and eventually became the first democratic President of Poland.  I wonder how much hope Walesa had when imprisoned in a freezing Polish cell during the 70s in the depth of the Cold War.

The point is, that in a complex system, you never know what will emerge but you can have some degree of certainty that your personal and collective small actions will be impacting the whole – even if you don’t know how.

  1. Inspiring Examples of Responsible Leaders and Followers

There has always been injustice, corruption, egotism, narcissism, psychopathy, indifference, cowardice….BUT there have always been people who counter these aspects of human nature. We tend to hero worship individuals such as Nelson Mandela or Greta Thunberg. In business there are great leaders such as Paul Polman and Yvon Chounard. But we need to recognise that they are only leaders because brave and enthusiastic people followed them.

One way of keeping up hope is to collect examples of responsible leaders and followers who inspire us. We can learn about their stories, times when they were up and times when they were down and also their flaws as well as their strengths. We can also learn about the followers who supported them such as Rosa Parks’ support for Martin Luther King.

In addition to famous followers there are many unknown followers who were brave and courageous for standing up for their beliefs. Most of us will fit in this latter category – we won’t be world famous but we will be able to hold our heads high because we acted and supported others in fighting for a better world…whatever the outcome.


  1. Hope in ‘We’ not ‘I’

My daughter talks passionately how we have been conditioned to see the world through the lens of ‘I’.

How can I contribute to the fight against climate change? Am I doing enough? I feel powerless to affect anything. I feel like I’m contributing to the problem not to the solution.

The point of this atomization of the individual, where we are all entrepreneurs of our own carefully curated identity is that it is making us ill. We cannot take responsibility for so much of the injustice in the world because it is systemic and cultural. We may benefit from cheap clothes made in Bangladesh or computers comprised of rare earth minerals mined in atrocious conditions, but there is little we can do about ALL of these issues.

If we take responsibility for everything all we end up doing is disempowering ourselves and losing hope.

Luckily, we are part of a global community where we all take responsibility for one little issue.  The issue you choose will probably be very personal to you and evoke intense emotions.  Dig into your issue in the knowledge that others are digging into theirs and that we are all part of a global community working in our own way to improve the lives of others.

Think of yourself as part of a community of global responsible leaders – whether you are working in your organization, community, country or across the globe – you are not alone!


So these are my sources of hope. Do share yours by adding in the comments below.

About the Author: Karen Blakeley

Karen Blakeley

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