Be hopeful, not optimistic

By Marcus Coetzee, 3 March 2021.

Recently, I have noticed that there seems to be a shortage of hope in the world. 

Despite the incredible progress that we have made as a species, everything seems to be a mess. Everyday I read and hear about poverty, war, dictatorships, pandemics, nuclear weapons, symptoms of global warming, genocide, gender-based violence, religious fundamentalism, corruption, unemployment etc. While the human race is resilient and will no doubt survive, there seems to be a lack of hope in our ability to do this ethically and with due respect for people and our planet.

This dearth of hope appears to be driven by three main factors. Firstly, our minds are hardwired to focus on threats as an evolutionary adaptation. Secondly, the media also contributes to the lack of hope. Negative and polarizing news that undermines genuine hope or cultivates false hope is more likely to be shared, reinforce existing beliefs and sell more advertising. Finally, unethical leaders have learned how to sow hatred and distrust in order to mobilize their followers.

Yet despite these problems, we need hope to give meaning and direction to our suffering. 

This article will reflect on the nature of hope and the three ingredients that constitute it. It will also consider what leaders can do to cultivate genuine hope (and not false hope) among their followers.

What is hope?

‘Hope’ is the sense that a certain future can be achieved and that there is a path to achieve it. It requires people to feel a sense of agency. This makes ‘hope’ a complex topic. 

‘Hope’ is the opposite of ‘dread’ (a general feeling of impending doom) and the antidote to ‘despair’ (when all seems lost). 

‘Hope’ gives meaning to suffering and helps people to cope as they strive towards a better future for themselves, and if not, then for their children or their children’s children. I believe that if all hope is lost we would have rampant despair and chaos as people realize that there is no better future for them and disrupt the status quo in order to create some possibility of hope. I believe that hope is what prevents our country, and the world, from imploding. 

‘Hope’ is different from ‘optimism’, which is a cognitive bias and ungrounded belief that things will probably turn out better or okay. Optimism is a passive process because it does not require a person to do anything other than choosing to be optimistic. Optimistic people are likely to become demoralized when things don’t turn out the way they expected. Alternatively, they may simply refuse to see things that threaten their optimistic mindset.

‘Hope’ is a critical component of the Stockdale Paradox, which involves confronting the ‘brutal truth’ of a situation while simultaneously embracing hope that one will ultimately prevail. This helps to calibrate hope as it puts it in perspective.

‘Hope’ is context specific. For example, at a societal-level, one might have hope that humanity will treat animals ethically, whereas at an organizational level, one might have hope that their organization would be able to mitigate or solve a social problem, and at a micro-level, one might have hope that they will be able to meet a life partner or lose weight.

Hope consists of three key ingredients

My reflection and discussions led me to conclude that the recipe for hope is as follows: ‘vision’ x ‘path’ x ‘agency’ = ‘hope’. If any of these variables are zero, then the recipe collapses. 

(While wrapping up this article, I eventually got around to googling this subject and found that Snyder’s Hope Theory was a couple steps ahead of me and found the same in the early 1990s. He found that hopeful thinking consists of ‘goals’, ‘pathways’ and ‘agency’.)

First, hope requires an achievable vision of what the future could look like. This might be your future or the future of your organization or country or beneficiaries. It takes a lot of work and sometimes years to interrogate this future and uncover an achievable vision, or to properly understand a vision that other people have developed.

The more complex the vision, and the more people that it affects, the more effort a leader must put into researching, debating and describing the vision, and gathering the input from stakeholders in order to elicit their insights and win their support. 

Here is an example of a powerful vision that Mandela shared at his trial in 1964:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But my Lord, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Second, hope also requires knowledge of a path for how this vision can be achieved. This might be a very difficult path with many obstacles and hardships that will take years or decades to traverse. Because the future tends not to turn out the way we expect, we will most likely need to revise this path and take some detours around obstacles.

Here are two verses from the poem, Life’s Journey – The Long and Winding Road by Sabindi, which illustrate the nature of the path:

“Each new risk you take as you travel
 Along roads made of tar and gravel
Will give you wisdom, strength and joy

And new life skills you can employ

The long and winding road is daunting
It can be hard it can be haunting
But it can lead you through the gate
And show you how to choose your fate”

In an organizational context, this broad pathway is known as the ‘mission’, where the specific steps along this pathway are outlined in its strategy. 

Third, hope requires a sense of agency – that there are things that one can do to travel this difficult path and achieve this vision. While you might not have the skills, resources and networks that will be required, there must be means by which you can acquire them and a willingness to do so. Without true agency, one is incapable of travelling this path. 

Agency is most probably the most difficult of these three ingredients to get right. The organizations that I deal with are all involved in poverty relief, in one way or another. They recognize the powerful influence that poverty exerts on people’s sense of agency, and how it robs even the most enthusiastic travellers of their confidence and sense of self-worth, while also limiting their access to resources and networks. This is what Amartya Sen said about agency in his book, Development as Freedom:

“Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”

The danger of false hope

‘False hope’ exists when one of these three ingredients is missing. There might be an unrealistic future state, or a pathway that cannot be travelled or will miss its destination, or insufficient agency to travel the desired path. This false hope will result in ongoing frustration, inevitably disappointment and a feeling of ‘lost hope’. Then once hope is lost, trust will be lost and very difficult to regain.

False hope is different from optimism as it requires a problem with one or more of the three ingredients: either the vision, pathway or agency. In contrast, optimism tends to be a more of a general feeling and outlook that things will turn out okay.

In his book Necessary Endings, Dr Henry Cloud cautioned us that no amount of wishful thinking or desire will create genuine hope. He also writes that ‘false hope’ is one of the things that prevents people from ending things that need to come to an end, whether it be a strategy, a relationship, belief or behaviour. 

Dr Cloud also mentioned that “hope is not a strategy” although hope is a precondition for a strategy to exist. Without hope a strategy will lack direction, and a directionless strategy is an oxymoron and not a real strategy.

Organizations and hope

It is a leader’s duty to cultivate hope among their followers. This is a critical component of good leadership. It enables leaders to move people towards an ethical set of outcomes. 

Non-profit organizations and social enterprises should strive to be beacons of hope for their beneficiaries and for the causes around which they rally.

Organizations encapsulate hope within their philosophy, which describes why it exists, the future state that it is hoping to achieve (‘vision’), how it will achieve it (‘mission’) and a guide for making decisions (‘values’). Furthermore, organizations where leaders have been able to unlock real hope are more likely to have staff and other stakeholders that are willing to engage with its strategy. They are likely to be more resilient and adaptable as they encounter difficulties in their path.


By deconstructing hope into its components, it is easier to recognize where it is lacking and identify what ingredient(s) are missing. This also makes it easier to rectify the recipe and cultivate hope where it is needed, and as we all know, hope is what makes the world go round.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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