Sustaining hope is not something we typically think of in the business environment today. After all, how many of you have ever taken a class on hope? Sustaining hope, it turns out, is one of the most essential ingredients of keeping people committed to the tasks at hand, over time. And, high hope leads to high performance. People with higher levels of hope are higher performers.
Perhaps the most dramatic story I heard in our research on this subject came from Frederic Hudson. Frederic Hudson is president of Hudson Institute and founder of Fielding Institute, a couple of educational institutions in California. They provide life- and career-planning opportunities and executive development and organization development services. And he offers this poignant testimony to hope:
“In August 1943,” he said, “when I was nine years old, I awakened one morning in silent terror. I was unable to move any part of my body except my eyes. My muscles seemed frozen, and my voice was silenced. Although I had gone to bed as a walking, talking, wiggling boy, I woke up the next day paralyzed with polio. Neither my legs nor my arms would respond to my desperate efforts to move, and my neck and my jaw were rigid as rocks. Breathing was panicked, and pain was everywhere.
“The next thing I remember was lying on the back seat of my parents’ old automobile as they drove me 30 miles from my home in upstate New York to a hospital in Syracuse. That journey was unbelievably painful. I was sicker than I’d ever felt in my life, and I knew the seriousness of the journey. I felt as helpless and fearful as I had ever felt in my life.
“At the hospital they placed me on a very hard bed with no pillow in a quarantined ward. I spent my waking moments staring upward at the ceiling, my only option, and feeling totally helpless. A wise nurse named Susan spent lots of time with me. Quiet and caring, she visited me frequently and told me many things.
“Her main message went like this: ‘Your future, Frederic, is hidden on the ceiling, and you can find it if you will look very hard. Look for what you are doing as you grow up. It’s all up there. Will you be a track star, a tennis player, or a scientist? Will you be going on trips to faraway places? Will you be making model airplanes and flying kites? Will you be going to summer camps and swimming? Will you go to college and become someone special? Will you marry and have a family? Frederic, all you have to do is study the ceiling. When you see your future, it will start to happen.’ ”
Frederic Hudson then spent the next days in the hospital searching the ceiling for his future. In the first vision he remembered he’s running and playing and being active, and he saw himself bouncing through the woods, having friends again, laughing, climbing, going to college, being a husband, father, a doctor.
Nurse Susan knew that the only part of little Frederic’s body that worked were his eyes, so she projected pictures on the ceiling to aid his imagination. She projected a checkerboard and taught him how to play chess. She read to him, played music, and tutored him on school lessons, and Frederic then began to wiggle his toes. So nurse Susan told him that his visions were being realized and that he was now in training.
She rigged a device so he could ring a bell with his toes. Then when his legs became somewhat more mobile, she rigged another contraption so he could open and close windows and doors. And on it went. “And today,” says Hudson, “I now walk, run, play tennis, and live without any noticeable deficit.”
Nurse Susan is a role model for anyone who would wish to enliven hope in others. Consider what she did — she took charge of the situation and gave of herself. She struggled and worked hard to assist Hudson’s recovery. She inspired positive images to appear in his mind. She filled him with thoughts of future possibilities. She taught him to play games, and when Hudson finally began to wiggle his toes, she rigged gear that enabled him to build his strength and mobility. Nurse Susan exemplifies hope in action. In short, she was truly a credible leader. “Keep hope alive” is the leader’s battle cry.
A fierce determination to succeed is characteristic of survivors and thrivers in all arenas. Leaders see setbacks and defeats as temporary, as temporary challenges that can be overcome by personal passion, will, and courage. Leaders demonstrate that by defying the verdict. Constantly exhibiting courage and actively tackling the work required, we can triumph over adversity. Having the courage of our convictions inspires others to do the same.
Norman Cousins, a former editor of Saturday Review and one of the most influential magazine editors in the United States, and also a student of medicine after a personal illness felled him for a number of years, is a classic example of someone who defied the verdict.
In Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, Cousins observed that when presented with a serious diagnosis, some cancer patients responded with a fierce determination to overcome. “They didn’t deny the diagnosis,” he said. “They denied the verdict that is usually associated with it. Was it any coincidence,” he asked, “that a substantial number of these patients lived significantly longer than had been predicted by oncologists?”
Credible leaders behave as the people in Cousins’ study. They acknowledge reality, but they do not dwell on the threat. Instead they see change as challenge and opportunity, and an opportunity for renaissance and learning. They move quickly to mobilize group and personal resources. They believe that they can influence the outcome and can turn these kinds of events to their advantage. They don’t become resentful, bitter, or alienated. Instead, they become engaged, involved, and committed. They do not dissolve into despair but resolve to act quickly and zestfully.
Credible leaders are proactive. They don’t wait to be told what to do. They believe that it’s possible to exert internal control over external events, rather than being controlled externally. They recognize that they cannot control 100 percent of what goes on in life, but they are determined to be in charge of the quality of their own lives.
Before you set out in a leadership journey, then, develop a strategy, and make sure you have the energy to travel the distance. Accept the diagnosis, but defy the verdict.
Lead and give hope.