Much of our leadership writings are about the strategies and skills we need to lead effectively. However, we don’t always talk about the emotional side of leadership. Words like trust and hope are based in emotion, not skill.

Leadership and Hope

I believe that hope is essential to leadership. For example, if leadership is about change, then we must have hope. We use hope in leadership when we see the present and can imagine a better future. To imagine and work for a better future, we must have a specific kind of hope – active hope! If we feel hopeless about the future, there is no reason to change our behavior in the present. When we believe our actions matter and that we can change or influence the future, we engage with our organizations and communities differently. That difference in behavior and belief is what causes leadership to manifest.

How is Active Hope Different Than Other Kinds of Hope?

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone wrote a book titled Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012). I love the concept of active hope in this book because it captures the essence of how hope and leadership have an interdependent relationship. In their book, Macy and Johnstone say that the word Hope has two different meanings – hopefulness and desire.

  1. Hopefulness is an emotion we experience when our preferred outcome seems reasonably likely to happen. If we require this kind of Hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our responses and leadership get obstructed when we don’t believe we can change things.
  2. Desire is an emotion we experience when we know what we hope for and what we’d like – or love – to take place. It is what we do with hope that really makes the difference in how we show up in the world and whether we will choose leadership or not. Our desire reveals itself in two distinct ways. It can be manifested as either passive or active hope.


What is Passive Hope?

Passive Hope is about waiting for external agencies (or people) to bring about what we desire. When we have passive hope, we can see a better future, but we don’t believe that we can influence the organization or our communities to achieve that future. This causes people who have passive hope to look for “leaders” who will fix their problems. They sometimes complain about our leaders who aren’t delivering on our vision of a better future.

People who have passive hope can’t be leaders. They may be in management positions or elected community leaders, but they aren’t leading because they are waiting for someone else to show up and make things happen. Leadership is about influencing and creating a better future, passive hope blocks that behavior.


How is Active Hope Different?

Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for. Leaders need to have a deep wellspring of active hope to be leaders! Active Hope is a practice. It is like gardening or yoga, it is something we do rather than have. In gardening, the flowers and weeds are always growing. You must have active hope to show up throughout the summer growing months and weed even though we know more weeds will be there tomorrow.

Active Hope has three aspects to the practice. We need to have all three to exercise active hope.

First, we take a clear view of reality. We don’t wear rose-colored glasses to view what is going on in the present. We anchor ourselves in everyday reality. We face it, name it, and acknowledge what is happening around us.

Secondly, we identify what we hope or desire in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or values we’d like to see expressed. We take time to imagine what “being better” would look like for ourselves and others.

Thirdly, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction. In other words, we show up and act in a way that is aligned with the future we want to happen. Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even when there is a large gap between our reality and desired future. We choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.

In yoga, half the practice is showing up. If we get on our mats even if we don’t feel like it, over time, our practice changes us. In meditation, showing up and practicing every day, even when our minds are jumping around, helps us become more mindful. Active hope is like the practice of yoga or meditation, we must show up each day and act in a way that is consistent with the kind of world we want to live in. This is the power of active hope; it invites us to act to make something happen, even if it doesn’t exist today.

That is why active hope and leadership are so tightly coupled. If we lead without a firm grip on reality, or without a sharp vision of what we want the future to look like, then our actions won’t matter. Our behaviors won’t align with a better future. Leadership is about showing up and behaving as if what we do matters. When we align our actions with our future vision, we not only practice leadership, we also practice active hope.

As human beings, we are different from nature in two ways, we have emotions and we have consciousness. We can choose, where nature works more on instinct. Whatever situation we face, we can choose our response to our current reality. To lead, (from wherever you sit in your organization, community, or world) you can choose to behave as if your vision of a better future can be created if we behave daily in a way that aligns with that future. That is what active hope is. For example, if we want a future that values and appreciates each other, we can show up every day and behave in a way that values and appreciates others.

The lovely thing about interdependent living systems is that they are connected. This means that our actions matter because of that connection. The phrase think globally, act locally perfectly captures this idea. Interdependence teaches us that our local actions combined with others acting locally in similar ways have the power to change the world.


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: