Giving hope as a leader in difficult times


In the 2008 book Become a resonant leaderthe authors use neurological and psychological research to demonstrate the contagious nature of an executive’s mood. The authors write that when problems arise, the CEO is angry, fearful, or insecure, those feelings will permeate the organization. On the other hand, if CEOs look for opportunity, have hope, and show determination, the organization will follow suit.

Duke Energy’s Lynn Good shares the same sentiment as a kind of epiphany. “It’s always showtime,” she explains. “I think one of the things that I probably didn’t fully appreciate before is that even in dark moments, I have to express optimism internally and externally because the team won’t believe that if I do it, we’ll make it. T.”

Marjorie Yang, an executive at Esquel, a textile manufacturer, emphasizes the importance of showing up with a positive attitude. “My job is to banish fear and frustration,” she says. “Fear is the worst enemy of any business. When I come into the office in a positive mood, it lifts everyone else up. As a manager, my job is to maintain confidence in the future and to radiate this confidence.”

Taking such a stance does not mean ignoring the facts of current reality. “My leadership mantra, which I think about literally every day,” says Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, “is that a leader’s role is to define reality and provide hope. I paraphrased it from Napoleon, but I always add the caveat that I don’t want to end up like Napoleon! It’s the simplest definition of leadership. Defining reality is very challenging. It takes a degree of transparency and courage to articulate what the truth is, what the facts are. But that’s not enough. What are the tactics? What strategies are there? What are the reasons people should be hopeful? This focus on defining reality and providing hope is something that guides me as a leader.”

As Chenault alludes, giving hope must not be artificial: it is the CEO’s role to find a real reason to believe, otherwise employees will notice the incongruity between being and doing I am an optimist by nature. No matter how difficult the situation is, there is always a solution,” says Herbert Hainer from Adidas. “Let’s talk about the solution, not the problem. When you have this mindset, it spills over to other people. If you’re artificially motivated, people will recognize that too. If you falsely say, ‘Hey, I’m so motivated’ and then come across as lethargic, your words are meaningless.”

JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon talks about how he faced reality while encouraging hope in his early days as CEO of Bank One. In conversations with his team, he was ruthlessly honest: “You talk about morality. You have done so many things in the name of morality. But everyone in the company knows that we are political and bureaucratic and we are losing. Morale will remain very low until we’re a good company.” At the same time, Dimon gave them hope by bringing them the right people to solve the problems and letting them know, “From now on, we’re here because we the best will be.”

Electronic Arts’ Andrew Wilson believes organizations today look to their CEOs not only for professional guidance, but also for personal, spiritual, and philosophical support. Sometimes it just takes a little humanity to inspire the squad. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people had to work remotely and Wilson hosted a Zoom meeting with 7,000 employees, Wilson’s five-year-old son walked into the room and wanted him to build a paper airplane. Wilson interrupted the call and made it a paper airplane. “Back then,” he recalls, “I just did it because that’s what I would do as a father. It took 30 seconds and everything was fine. After that, people reached out and said, “Thank you. You just gave us permission to be parents. You just gave us permission to spend the time.’

“In those moments,” says Wilson, “you naturally do things that strengthen or inspire your business. When I talk to friends who are great CEOs, I don’t hear how big the company is, what the stock price is, how much money it makes, or how important it is to global GDP. What I hear is how they make their people feel. That is the legacy of a great CEO.”

The American bestselling author Kurt Vonnegut famously coined the phrase “I am a human, not a human act”. When most people take a quiet moment to think about which leaders inspire them the most, the answer rarely seems to come down to the specific actions of the leader, but more to the nature of their “being”. For this reason, the best CEOs strive for constant clarity about who they want and need to be in the role.

The starting point is to connect with one’s beliefs and remain authentic to a set of core beliefs regardless of the circumstances. At the same time, the best are willing to adapt their leadership style to the needs of the organization as long as it doesn’t go against their core beliefs. To make such a switch, they proactively seek feedback, otherwise they are unlikely to receive honest and constructive advice. At the same time, they ensure that employees have hope for the future. We have now discussed how CEOs approach the do and be aspects of personal effectiveness. We’ll end our discussion by taking a step back and seeing how the best CEOs stay focused on their role.

Excerpt adapted from CEO Excellence: The six mindsets that separate the best leaders from the rest. Copyright © 2022 Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller & Vikram Malhotra. Excerpted with permission from Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Carolyn Dewar is a Senior Partner in McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office and co-leads the firm’s global CEO Excellence service line. She co-authored Scott Keller and Vikram Malhorta on their book CEO excellence.

Scott Keller is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Southern California office and co-leads the firm’s global CEO excellence service line.

Vikram (Vik) Malhotra is a senior partner in McKinsey’s New York office and the longest-serving member of the firm. Giving hope as a leader in difficult times


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