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June - 2009 - issue > People Manager

Managers as dealers in hope

C Mahalingam (Mali)
Thursday, June 11, 2009
C Mahalingam (Mali)
A famous saying attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte goes like this: ‘Leaders are dealers in hope’. We are undoubtedly living in times of despair and disillusionment. And only leaders across the organizational levels can exercise influence on the minds and thoughts of the people they lead. Peter Drucker, who is called Father of modern management wrote, “Even if you have lost everything, remember you still have your future.” Generating hope about the future and enlisting and mobilizing the members of the team towards creating that future is a key responsibility of every leader.
The Magic of Hope Understandably, hope is a powerful force that triggers action even in the face of difficulties. It helps execute by getting the managers to heighten both their focus and their energies. Execution happens when energy meets with focus. Hope embraces myriad possibilities. And possibilities are about the future. Hope delivers the can-do attitude and forms the basis for the self-fulfilling prophesy. Hope harnesses the abilities in full gear and reduces uncertainty. This is so significant as times are anything but certain in terms of challenges as much as opportunities. Hope also heals; the medical field is replete with stories of people who fought life-threatening diseases with hope and courage and recovered miraculously. In an organizational setting, hope also builds the team and community. James Douglas Ludema has the following to say in his doctoral dissertation on collective storytelling: ‘hope is a cooperative act. It is born, nurtured, and sustained in relationship.’ Leaders and their Hope Every manager becomes a leader when he or she demonstrates that they believe in the possibility of what their teams can do. Hope is a powerful human emotion that managers must kindle, but before they can do so they must be hopeful themselves! A part of the problem in many organizations is that managers pass on their despair to their teams, rather than creating hope and helping the people stand up and live up to the dream, hope, and possibility. Today’s environment is typically characterized by cynicism, despair, and mistrust – both real and perceived. Post 9/11 tragedy that hit New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani mobilized the shattered people by focusing on hope and painting the possibility of rebuilding the city and more importantly the feeling of being together to help New York to re-emerge as a central force in the world’s markets. He did everything he can to ensure that the attack did not kill the spirit of the city and the United States. Even as he acknowledged the grief and tragedy, he laid the foundation for rebuilding the hope for every New Yorker. Leaders Feed the ‘Hungry Spirit’ in people Managers start with the aspirations of people to create hope. It is very rare that you will come across members in your team who say that they have no aspirations. And invariably, aspirations have a healthy dose of ‘wanting to make a difference’. Quite often, this remains latent and unexpressed by the employees even to their managers. Most often managers’ conversations with their people relate to aspirations around titles, responsibilities, promotions, and pay rises. With all this under severe constraint now, the conversations should ideally focus on the ‘hungry spirit’ in each of the employees and how to feed the same. Charles Handy, a famous writer, TV personality, and professor of management wrote a powerful book titled The Hungry Spirit in which he refers to the ‘longing and desire’ of people to contribute something meaningful which is often not met. Managers have a unique opportunity to tap into this hungry spirit and craving for meaningful contribution, and there lies the hopes of people. Needless to emphasize, this helps rebuild the organization no matter how bad is the morale and enthusiasm. Manager’s Tools for Harnessing Hope Tapping into aspirations and feeding the hungry spirit is obviously a powerful tool. Managers can also leverage a few other vehicles to accomplish this. Some of them are:
Making meaningful connections: While this is an all-season must for managers to do, it assumes even higher criticality when the morale is down and despair is visible. Frequent and honest communication plays an important role particularly about the business conditions and how the organization is addressing the same. Unfortunately, in many organizations there is not much of information sharing that happens with first line managers and, as a result, they are not able to communicate in turn with confidence and credibility. The senior leadership should practice simultaneity in communication and information sharing in order to empower and inform the middle and first line managers.
Redefining the possible and stretching the boundaries: Here again, conversations that managers have with their teams should focus on speed, efficiency, cost effectiveness, and doing more with less. Gaining buy-in of people for the stretch objectives and to shoot for the apparently impossible but collectively doable goals must be discussed. Organizations like NASA practice this as a way of life, given the unprecedented and unforeseeable challenges some of their missions present. And collective wisdom and team work often accomplish many tasks that are normally declared not doable.
Acknowledging and celebrating contributions: People do more of the things they are rewarded for or they see others being rewarded for. Hence, every single act of stretch and beating boundaries needs an immediate and loud acknowledgement. Nothing despairs people like absence of acknowledgement.
The Hasselbein factor: Frances Hasselbein was the CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA. The Business Week featured her on its cover, acknowledging and recognizing her leadership to the girl scouts. Her purpose in life as evidenced in every action of hers is to bring out the best in the people she meets along her life’s journey. Her words and actions evoke a high regard for people. In short, she just saw the best in people. And in human history, Hasselbein has had the record of creating and managing a highly inspired organization of girl scouts with a whopping 780,000 volunteers. Such is the power of focusing on human value and dignity. And this is as simple as managers determined to focus on bringing the best out of people by affirming them and giving them hope and a reason to be optimistic about their future. Managers as Leaders of Profound Change I was deeply inspired when I read the book The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander, the famous conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra where he talks about one of the practices for creating a world of possibility. This is about ‘leading from any chair’. As the conductor of any orchestra does not control any instrument nor make any noise but help synchronize the work of others, leaders and managers can be a powerful source of building the rhythm and performance. It is not necessary that to create hope the leaders must be high ranking managers. Well, therefore you can lead from any chair, if you wish to and are determined to

Author is Executive Vice President & Chief People Officer of Symphony Services.

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