February 11, 2008
John Ortberg on Hope Management
Bringing hope is one responsibility no leader should delegate.
Ronald Reagan once gave this nugget of advice, "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere." Recently, John Ortberg read the biography of another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and through FDR's story he came to the realization that there is one aspect of leadership we should never delegate - hope.
I don't have a problem with delegation. I love to delegate. I am either lazy enough, or busy enough, or trusting enough, or congenial enough, that the notion leaving tasks in someone else's lap doesn't just sound wise to me, it sounds attractive. But I am coming to the conclusion that the one task a leader can never delegate, especially in the church, is hope.
I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's wonderful biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time (Simon & Schuster, 2004). She notes that Franklin was not the most intelligent president of all time (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously called him a "second-rate intellect but a first rate-temperament.") He was surrounded by leaders who were more educated, more accomplished, more gifted, and more knowledgeable. But he had one gift that mattered more. "No factor was more important to Roosevelt's leadership than his confidence in himself and in the American people," she wrote.
The White House Counsel, Sam Rosenman, observed that FDR had a capacity to transmit this confidence to others; to allow "those who hear it to begin to feel it and take part in it, to rejoice in it - and to return it tenfold by their own confidence." Labor Secretary Francis Perkins noted that, like everyone else, she "came away from an interview with the President feeling better, not because he had solved any problems?but because he had made me feel more cheerful, stronger, more determined."
In the middle of a Great Depression, or World War II, or a capital campaign, or a staff crisis, people inevitably wonder: "Can we get through this? Is it worth all the effort and confusion? Can we really overcome this challenge?" They inevitably look to the person at the core; the man or woman leading the charge, the one who sees the big picture. When people see a leader with this kind of vital optimism, who radiates a sense that together we can do what needs to be done, then people tend to decide not to waste their energy wondering about "if" but focus their energy going after "how."
On the other hand, when Eeyore is at the helm the whole ship is in trouble. Eeyore may be the most intelligent, gifted, attractive, educated, credentialed person in the room. But if he or she is easily deflated, sensitive to defeat and criticism, and de-motivated by setbacks, the whole community begins the long slow spiral downward.
The church is in the hope business. We of all people ought to be known most for our hope; because our hope is founded on something deeper than human ability or wishful thinking. Martin Luther King was fond of citing Reinhold Niebuhr's distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism believes in progress; that circumstances will get better. Hope, however, is is built on the conviction that another reality, another Kingdom, already exists. And so hope endures when hype fades.
And yet, even ministry can be hope-draining. Churches can become places of cynicism, resistance, and pessimism. Spiritual resistance, my own sinfulness, and the sheer gravitational pull of the status quo can drain away the power to dream. Both hope and pessimism are deeply contagious. And no one is more infectious than a leader.
For this reason I've realized that I must learn the art of hope management. I must learn about the activities and practices and people who build hope, as well as the activities and practices and people who drain hope.
When I looked back at my old journals it came as a surprise to me how often they were simply chronicles of failure. I would write down how I felt inadequate as a pastor, incompetent as a dad, and not-all-that-great as a Christian in general. These weren't so much confessions with absolution and forgiveness; they were vague general expressions of discouragement that left me more discouraged. They were the opposite of what David did when he "encouraged himself in the Lord." I was "discouraging myself in the Lord."
So now I try to steward my hope; not by avoiding thinking about my sin, but trying to confess it, learn from it, and live in the reality of newness and grace. I have identified people in my life who breathe energy and hope into me, and I try to get large doses of time with them - especially on Mondays.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, though not religious himself, notes that not only does faith produce hopeful people, but more robust faith produces more robust hope. For all the great hopers are mystics. And long before FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, a great hoper known as Julian of Norwich sang her song from the depths of the Black Plague-infested fourteenth century:
But all shall be well,
And all shall be well,
And all manner of things shall be well?
He did not say, "You shall know no storms, no travails, no disease,"
He said, "You shall not be overcome."
You can't delegate hope.
John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership journal and the pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.
LISTEN to John Ortberg's sermon about hope at PreachingToday.com.
LEARN to lead with hope by downloading the case study, "Hope for the Dry Times," at BuildingChurchLeaders.com.