Dealing in hope

Regardless of your job title or influence, at some point, you will most likely be required to organize a person, or group of people, to march towards a common goal. Trying to get people to do something is hard. If you’ve done it multiple times, then you’ve probably botched it more than once. How do you become better? Where do you even start? What are the typical characteristics or tactics of great leaders? I’ll tell you about one key guideline I try to follow as a leader, but first, let’s take inspiration from a French tyrant.

A leader is a dealer in hope. —Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” I agree with that statement, but you need to understand how I define “hope” in this and all contexts. The modern usage of hope has almost become a pejorative: hoping something will happen is framed as a weak, passive action. Hope has incorrectly become a synonym for “wish.” Though the real definition for hope is to expect with confidence. That’s substantially different from wish: to want something to be true or to happen.

…the real definition for hope is to expect with confidence

How can you get someone to expect something will happen with confidence? Help them understand the purpose of the initiative and guide them to the solution.

Early in my career, I would dive straight into the “What”. With the hubris of inexperience, I thought I could win people over by showing them I had it all figured out. The more I knew, the more confident they would be. Right? Surely they’d get on board if I had every little detail figured out: what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, when, and, oh yeah, why.

This tactic wasn’t totally without merit. Some people appreciated the bravado. Some people liked the ease that comes with having a script to follow. Some people liked the lack of culpability that comes with following someone else’s plan.

Over time I’ve realized one key guiding principle: I can lead people through even the most difficult projects by kicking it off with a focus on the Why and the Why Now. One way to think of this guideline is if you were going to talk for 30 minutes about your project, spend your time thusly:

  1. What (hint) are we here to talk about? (1m)
  2. Why are we doing this project? (14m)
  3. Why now? (5m)
  4. What are we going to do? (3m)
  5. How are we going to do it? (2m)
  6. When are we going to do it? (1m)

If you’ve done your job right, your team will fill in the details about the what, how, and when. The hope you have dealt is the confidence that this project is necessary. It is not only necessary, it is necessary now. People can and should debate the best way to tackle the problem, but you’ve spent your time providing evidence that the problem needs solving and needs solving now.

This may be hard advice to follow if you’ve been thinking about this problem for a while. Maybe you’ve even sketched out solutions. Maybe it will be your job to write the requirements. The mistake is assuming “vision” is providing a blueprint. Even if you can picture the solution perfectly, you need a team to take that ride with you. It doesn’t matter who had the idea first. It doesn’t matter if two people have the same idea. That’s even better! Confirmation of the great-minds-think-alike variety is validating. Provide a vision of a future where the problem no longer exists. Paint that picture. Tell the story of life after the solution. Don’t tell the story of how the problem was solved. If you’ve done your job right, your team will have hope.

Are you a WHAT leader? Or are you a WHY and WHY NOW leader?




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