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A Mix of Hope and Optimism – The power to propel things forward

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

As leaders, we always wonder or work to improve our leadership impact. What will change the game? What will give others the extra energy to go the extra mile? We sometimes overlook the power of optimism and hope to ensure we and our teams are all in.

The purpose of optimism

The words optimism and hope might initially sound synonymous, but have distinct meanings. Optimism is a state of mind and belief that a favorable outcome will likely occur. No matter how bad things get, the optimist deep down inside believes it will always get better. Optimism is an internal state of mind and can be defined as a personality trait. Leaders who naturally display optimism, their direct reports find it contagious. Even when things don’t feel good or look promising, they inspire others to believe that something better will emerge. Optimism gives birth to hope, but hope is not just a feeling; it requires more.

Hope provides courage

Meanwhile, to hope as a verb is generally defined as “wanting or expecting something to happen or be true.” Whereas optimism is a state of being or a positive world outlook, hope is more rooted in action or process-driven. Irish poet Seamus Heaney distinguishes the two states of mind this way: “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”

A 2004 study concluded: “Optimism focuses more broadly on the expected quality of future outcomes in general, where hope focuses more directly on expectations about the personal attainment of specific goals.”

Leaders have the ability to learn the process of hope to instill self-confidence and give people the courage to pursue their personal and professional goals and focus on continuous growth.

Hope starts with a change of perspective

Sometimes, the most insightful leadership lessons come from unexpected places. There is a beautiful moment at the end of Season 1 of the series of Ted Lasso when Richmond FC is facing relegation. Their coach Ted, enters the locker room to talk to the team. He starts by taking issue with the British maxim, “It’s the hope that kills you.” He goes on to champion the importance of hope for his team and counter this maxim with the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”. Ted tells the team, “I don’t need you all to answer the question (do you believe in miracles) for me, I believe in hope, I believe in belief…I need you all to answer it for yourselves”.

Ted doesn’t advocate toxic positivity; he doesn’t push his team to look on the bright side or deny their pain and misery at that moment… He simply holds space for them to explore a slight shift of perception. That shift is profound and far-reaching. What’s important is not whether the team goes on to win or lose (no spoilers here!). It’s what you can see take place in the face of each team member because Ted introduces ‘hope’. The energy of the room shifts; some smile, some look at each other, and eventually, they all stand to face whatever the next half throws at them.

What is hope?

“Hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process.” To define this process, the Researcher C.R. Snyder identifies:

1) Existence of goals,

2) Flexibility to develop pathways to those goals,

3) Personal agency and belief that these goals are possible.

As Leaders, our main role is to help shape our team's goals and pathways and build that belief within them, alongside the capability to make those goals a reality. Of course, there are success stories with this approach. Ted Lasso offers us an alternative approach: to hold space for others to define those goals, pathways, and that sense of belief. To inspire them to do so through our willingness to commit to possibilities that are far from certain or even likely, to allow others to watch us struggle and embrace defeat to discover what matters most. For hope to thrive, we need to normalize the act of struggle, defeat, and adversity. We need to be with others through their own ‘half-time’ and share our own struggles with others.

Essentially, hope is a spark of energy that is contagious. It’s not a commitment to what’s likely to what’s possible and what matters most.

A brilliant example of hopeful leadership in action comes from Stuart Butterfield and his team at Tiny Speck. When Glitch, the video game they created, proved unsuccessful, they prioritized what mattered most: the team and their customers.

“We made a website called “Hire a Genius” and put everyone’s LinkedIn and photo up there. And we ended up getting every single person a job. We were able to give customers a choice of their money back, or they could let us keep it, or we could donate it to a set number of charities...*

With around 5 million dollars, Butterfield resisted doing everything he could to save the product and his business; instead, he committed to collective possibility in that moment of ‘half-time’ struggle with his team.

“We didn’t have to shut down, and I think there’s a real temptation to go to the last dollar and hope that there’s some kind of “Hail Mary” to save it. The good thing about shutting down early is that we could not do anything for a few months…within, I think, three weeks, we decided that this internal communication system we had developed while we were working on the game could be a product, and we started building that.*

That product became ‘Slack’, which, as of 2023, has 42.7 million daily users**.

The phrase “Hope is not a strategy” is somewhat ubiquitous, but it’s a maxim that journalist Bryce Hoffman took issue with in his article for Forbes: “Hope May Not Be a Strategy But That Doesn’t Mean It Shouldn’t Be Part Of Yours.” He cites his experience of watching Alan Mulally, the legendary CEO of Ford, in action.

“Mulally’s smile was so persistent and so infectious that I started referring to him as Ford’s “cheerleader-in-chief.”

Some of the company’s press people took issue with that. They told me it was condescending and asked me to stop printing that title. I asked Alan what he thought about that.

“Are you kidding me?!?” he responded. “I love that title! I have no more as CEO than inspiring people. Folks here have been down so long that they’ve forgotten which way is up. If we’re going to revive this company, I first need to restore hope in its employees.”***

Hopeful leadership requires a willingness to be seen as naïve or even foolish. To believe and invest in the face of struggle rather than judging the likelihood of success. This is not the same as recklessness or wilfulness; it’s focusing on what matters most in the moment.

The act of hope, that conscious direction of energy into something that inspires us, can act like a spark of inspiration to others. When Leaders act in hope and hold space for others to make that same investment of energy – when they shift the focus from the outcome, speed, or even ‘positivity’ and allow that cognitive shift toward what is essential and possible, they create the gateway to collective trust, innovation, creativity, and collaboration. Interestingly, Obama’s powerful slogan was not “I can” but “We can.” Collective hope is a powerful agent of transformation. Whether hope is a part of your strategy or not, it must be essential to your leadership.

Ways to create hope and optimism

1. Inspire others. Hope must begin with you. As a leader, it requires you to fully commit to your calling by placing your mind, body, heart, and soul into the experience. When you fully realize your calling, you become energized and spark others into action. Your deep caring and passion speak volumes to your audiences, and you instill others to care just as deeply.

2. Be emotionally present - If you want to instill hope, you must be emotionally present and listen intently to others. People will then share their fears and concerns with you. It also gives space for coaching and enabling others to solve their own problems and move forward with self-confidence.

3. Create possibilities - Hope isn’t possible without the option of a better future. Your role as a leader is to bring possibilities to life by communicating your positive picture of what will happen. These hopeful messages touch on a genuine longing and need of others.

4. Be a catalyst of change - Mastering change is required for you to transform your organization and engage others in the process. By dealing with the emotional side of change, you can help others overcome resistance to it. Remember, you are asking others to step into the unknown, where unanticipated challenges will materialize. You want to ensure that your team has the tools to navigate these choppy waters.

5. Engage in storytelling: Telling stories of people overcoming obstacles can instill hope in our teams. Stories help team members unlock internal perseverance and move forward, despite

Hope is a process

We must remember that hope is a process that is required to bring ideas to life. It starts with describing the future, setting goals, identifying potential setbacks, celebrating success, and learning from failure. When you address setbacks honestly, your team members learn to stay the course and materialize the envisioned future.

*Stuart Butterfield quotes from the transcript of the Podcast Masters of Scale and Butterfield’s conversation with Reed Hastings.

** Slack statistic taken from

***Forbes article link:

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