Hope is the thing with feathers

If you’re going to talk about hope then you could do worse than choose a bright spring morning which happens to be your daughter’s birthday. Perhaps that put me in too positive a frame of mind, as I delivered today’s webinar “how to handle hope” for the Civil Service College. The truth is I’ve always believed that leaders who can properly harness hope are the ones who earn our support and even our affection. Don’t confuse hope with optimism. And don’t confuse optimism with optimism bias.

Photo by Aniket Bhattacharya on Unsplash

I prefer to talk about hope, because generally it is grounded in something. Ask someone to quote FDR’s most famous line from his inaugural address in 1933, and they’ll rightly say “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. But, he also said this:

“More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

No blind optimism, or happy talk from the new President. His approach was grounded in a firm understanding of the difficult present — that is what made his plan for a more prosperous future the more compelling. Hope was his fuel, not his plan. A similar thread could be seen in the inauguration speech of Barack Obama in 2009 in the midst of the financial crash. He said: “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time”.

With the rapid rollout of vaccines across the U.K. people have every right to be feeling more positive, but governments and frontline services must recognise this as a moment of communications risk too. Hope isn’t a strategy all of its own, and there are plenty of missteps which still require a proper examination and a thorough reckoning. There is a fragility to our optimism too. Not just because of the previous false starts, but because as businesses and individuals we’ve all shelved certain things ‘whilst we get through’. Scratch the surface and many people are still feeling combinations of loss, anger and uncertainty. Many in the hospitality industry will give it a fresh go this year, but many expect to struggle. We have all battened down the hatches for many months now, and when we fling open the windows, the sunlight could be harsh as well as bright. Organisations need to tiptoe their way to a change in tone, and there needs to be a clear plan for the future. We’ve seen where optimism bias takes us, and we want no more of that. We’ve seen the slogan — building back better — now we want to see the bricks and mortar.

Hope is not the machinery of change, but it is the fuel. It is the impetus that drives us forwards and it’s an essential element of all crisis communications. No matter how bleak things can get, Emily Dickinson was right: hope is the thing with feathers, and it never stops – at all.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops – at all -

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson

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Matt Greenough

Former Chief Special Adviser and Speechwriter to the First Minister of Wales. Now run Words Matter, a communications consultancy - https://WordsMatter.uk