Leading in times of fear and hope – the temptations of the easy path

How do you lead across the gap between a morally ambitious, hopeful vision of the future and the immediate, obvious reaction to difficult times? Do you even want to?

Welcome to 2016: ongoing refugee crises and the geo-political turmoil causing people to flee; concerns about China’s economic leadership, plunging oil prices and the ripple effects on resource driven economies.  All of this seasoned with the visceral fears being promulgated by IS/Daesh and its hydra-forms around the world.  That adds up to a lot of fear.

It also adds up to a big choice for anyone in a leadership role – as every Republican and Democrat Presidential candidate in the U.S. knows.  Align people around fear or choose hope?

Angela Merkel[1] has committed herself to hope in the ideal of a united Europe.  She is leading Germany’s open-armed welcome of Syrian refugees despite the clear pressures this places on local communities, the economy and the risks of strengthening right-wing extremism.  Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Órban[2] presents the alternative response, simplifying the problem by making clear distinctions between those who are welcome and those who are not.[3]

One may seem an obviously morally preferable path.  Yet there is a big gap between inspiring through envisioning what ought to be and leading people to bring that same vision into reality when things get murky.  Witness the unfolding ramifications of events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and  evidence that terrorists responsible for the December attacks in Paris arrived by posing as Syrian refugees.

Truthfully, the deck is stacked against Ms Merkel.

Leading by aligning around hope is hard work as it requires innovative problem solving.  In the words of Daniel Kahneman[4] this means ‘slow thinking’ – creative, effortful engagement from Ms Merkel, the people of Germany and those who are co-creators of the Syrian crisis, over a sustained period of time.

Aligning people around fear, on the other hand, requires virtually no effort.  We are biologically wired to respond to threat (real or imagined) in a way that is patterned on ancient survival skills and our own past experiences.  In that sense our fear driven responses are entirely predictable and automatic.

When we are responding from a place of fear we lose our capacity to think creatively.[5] In the face of modern complex challenges that is dangerous.  More than that, evidence for the hopeful path washes off as it requires creative, effortful work to reconsider a position, while evidence for the negative sticks.

Psychologically we can only come from one place at a time – hope (with options for creative thinking) or fear (predictable, past-oriented thinking). 

This means we are ALL responsible for the part we are playing in shaping the zeitgeist, which will enable either hope or fear to thrive.  This is not somebody else’s problem.  This is an individual and local matter, as well as a national and global one.  We each have a responsibility to pay attention to:

  1. Our intention as leaders – to model and inspire fear or hope.
  2. Where we set the borders of our awareness – do I see how my decisions and actions link into a wider issue?
  3. Our fundamental beliefs and values.  When pushed, do I truly believe in shared, human rights?

I want to offer one small yet powerful key to all three areas as a starting point: we make a choice for fear every time we put a label to someone.  

Just take a moment to think about that.  Every time we label someone we give our brains a shortcut to assess and respond to a situation.  Our brains love such rules of thumb[6].  We couldn’t function without them.   Ah you’re a WASP[7]!  No further thought required.  I know how to respond. Ditto refugee, feminist or even such positive-sounding things as ‘a high-potential’.[8]

In some way I have defined you as ‘other’ and by doing so have just stripped you of your individual humanity and therefore the basis for all of your natural, human rights.

At this point, psychologically, I am capable of doing anything to you – even killing you.

If you think I am overstating things consider the last argument you regretted with someone you love.  We are all capable of wounding when we lose sight of the person’s name, individual value, intentions and deeper motivations.

At the very least you have given up your ability to build connection, let alone a hope-based alignment.  You have very subtly given up the basis for truly informed and creative thinking.

So our first action is to become aware of where and how we are using labels with people involved in the situations we face.  Some of these are unconscious.  We have to work backwards from knowing we are not treating that person as equal to considering how we are labelling them as different/inferior.  Sometimes it’s about labelling individuals as part of a group.  Think about the debate surrounding the language of refugee versus migrant versus illegal migrant in Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

The second action is to get curious and get behind that label – to identify names, faces with real needs and personal motivations.

It sounds simple in principle and can be profoundly challenging in practice.  It takes courage and commitment.  It will probably also involve a good dose of humility.

This is where real grounds for hope come in.

You don’t have to like the person to engage with them as a human being and open up the possibility of outcomes which are radically different from our fears.  Proof?  Ninety-five percent of hostage negotiations with trained negotiators are successful.[9]  George Kohlrieser in his book ‘Care to Dare’ makes a clear case for this in a business context – indeed wherever we find ourselves in relationship with others.  In short, if there is no relationship – build one.

If you’re like me, at this point you’re thinking of all the people you wouldn’t touch with the proverbial barge pole.  While this may be human, if we are in a leadership role, I believe we are required to step beyond this.  Quite literally we have to lead a new way for others to follow.

Day by day we choose whether to build intellectual muscle for hope or fear.  Building a resilient hope-based community takes time and is the multiplied effect of individual effort.  Think of the responses of the community of Charleston, grieving deeply for the people killed last December by Dylann Roof after they welcomed him into their church.  They showed extraordinary compassion and dignity, while not shying away from the horrific nature of what had happened.  The people of Charleston were lauded for their humanistic and heart-felt response to events, which many linked to a long-term building of an integrated community lead by their Mayor of 40 years, Joe Riley.[10]

This is not about adopting a saccharine approach which reduces people to helpless ‘victims’ needing our pity or support or minimising the reality of deeds done.  The horrified call to action experienced in response to Aylan Kurdi’s[11] death does not belie the reality of some refugees bringing their traumas and past grievances with them.

This is about engaging each other as individual humans with a name, valid needs and motivations and at the same challenging unacceptable behaviour.

In my experience it requires diligent effort.  We will label and judge.  It’s part of what we do naturally in a healthy way to deal with the vast complexities of life.

What’s important is the clarity of our intention and the quality of our attention to the challenge.

Whether you lead whole organisations or are the captain of your own life, my invitation to you is this.  The next time you find yourself attaching a label to someone to define them as ‘other’ or as justification for a point of view, interrupt yourself and get curious.  Honestly seek to put names, faces, desires and motivations to the very same people and observe what more you learn, how your thinking and understanding changes.  For in that small step is the beginning of the road to our best of hopes, for everyone.


Ruth McCance is an Executive Confidante, Coach and Faciliator with over 20 years’ experience in guiding people on their leadership journey, as they navigate change for themselves and their organisations. Beginning on the basis that we lead through the quality of our relationships, she will help you develop a ‘symphonised’ way of leading which harnesses not just your own power but the power of those around you.   

Ruth’s vision is of a world where the most powerful organisations are guided by people who lead through difference, not despite difference, leaving a legacy of amazing achievements by establishing deeply connected human networks.

[1] This recent article in the NY Times summarises the dilemma well

[2] For example as outlined here

[3] See also

[4] Daniel Kahneman 2011, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux  and by Penguin Books in 2012.

[5] If you’re not familiar with this, google amygdala hi-jack or review any psych textbook on the fight/flight response.  You’ll also find a summary in the George Kohlrieser article link in footnote 9.

[6] This is the thinking fast which Daniel Kahnemann sets out in exquisite detail in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’

[7] Originating in the US, this is the acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

[8] The first person I’m aware of grappling with this is philosopher Martin Buber with his concepts of I:thou.  If you know of others please let me know.





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