Working with Realistic Hope and Hopeful Realism – by Robbie Macpherson

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.”

The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes

2020 is proving to be a year like no other. In a few brutal months our reality has been forever altered, and we are reeling. The year began with the full reality of climate change threat hitting us as we watched apocalyptic scenes of fire and destruction within a short drive of our city centres and struggled to breathe as thick smoke chocked our cities. Climate change was no longer an abstract future threat but a lived reality.

We barely had time to breathe, literally, when the global pandemic which had been creeping towards, brutally smashed us in mid-March. A few days into lockdown I walked down the road to a medical appointment feeling disorientated and vulnerable, and passed hundreds of shell-shocked people queuing outside Marrickville Centrelink. They waited patiently for hours for some level of government help and support, tottering as the reality of their changed circumstances sunk in. I felt sick in the stomach and powerless.

The experience of Lockdown has been different for each of us. Some have enjoyed the space, time, new routine and the break from travel. Others have struggled with the isolation, cooped up with family members, juggling home schooling and facing work uncertainty. And the full impact of the brutal economic headwind ahead has barely been felt. As we peer at each other in Zoomland, we find connection and resilience but also see fragility, vulnerability and fear.

Just when we are ‘over all of this’, with a growing desire for some return to a version of normality, we watch in horror as a black man in America lies dying in agony, killed by a white police officer’s knee pressed into his neck. Any notion that the Black Lives Matter movement is a US issue is shattered by footage of a young Aboriginal boy being brutally slammed into the concrete by a police officer in Sydney. Black Lives Matter is our issue too.

We are in deep water struggling to stay afloat. To face one crisis is demanding. To encounter environmental, health, economic and race crises concurrently can feel overwhelming. There have been days I have not turned on the news, and wanted to hide under my doona to escape, energy depleted, resilience waning. I suspect I am not alone. Perhaps some of us are facing our private existential and strategic crises?

And yet we know deep in our hearts that giving into despair is both indulgent and unhelpful. We need to find a way of not just turning up but being useful to the people we coach, and the teams and groups and clients we work with. Our work requires us to muster the energy, courage, resilience and know-how to work with and alongside people.

I am forced to struggle with the challenge of what it means, in this moment, to work both with the tough reality we confront and with hope.  Not hope that is false, trite or naïve, but something which is grounded in something solid and robust that will serve the demands and complexity of this time.  There are already too many selling simplistic answers to the tough issues we face. Likewise, apocalyptic and doomsday thinking will reinforce the darkness. To state the obvious, if we lack hope, we are hopeless.

Those wanting a neat answer from me will, I fear, be disappointed. I am working my way towards some level of clarity, but am not there yet, but it seems I am facing both an existential and strategic challenge. How to be and how to act. I can only offer some questions and my struggle.

What is the source of our hope?

If we want to work with hope, we need to know what the source of our hope is and know that it is robust to see us through. For some it may be faith based, political, ideological, or a deep enduring sense of purpose. I have found myself reaching out to the philosophers and poets for help. They’re the people who grapple with the human condition at its essence and try to wrestle it to the ground.

Perhaps the existential question of the nature of the human condition is more critical than ever. If we are, as Original Sin, the Enlightenment, William Golding and Hobbes suggest, essentially selfish, bad, cruel at our core, then we need to continue to look for ‘civilising’ methods to minimise and contain these urges. More law and order, walls, punishment, prisons, and other control mechanisms. Police brutality becomes an unfortunate by-product of the need for strong social control; border protection and walls necessary to keep us safe from the ‘other’; more weapons and surveillance; heavier punishments to keep us safe; more people management, rules and regulations. It seems this view is in the ascendancy in many places. “I am your President of Law and Order.” This “veneer theory” (that we have a veneer of civility masking our real, darker instincts) argues we face anarchy and a complete breakdown of society, without our basic instincts being controlled from external authority.

If, however, Rousseau, the biologist de Waal, Bregman and co., are correct in that humans are basically good, and that our altruism and cooperative nature and desire to live in harmony with each other is central and instinctive, then its implications are profound. In his recent publication Human Kind, young Dutch historian Rutger Bregman argues passionately for the ‘radical idea’ that humans are overwhelmingly decent. He draws upon significant anthropological, historical and social science to support his case. He also warns that the members of this camp are likely to face deep ongoing cynicism, accusations of naivety and weakness, especially in periods like this.

This struggle is playing out in almost every faultline we can look at, from day-to-day political discourse, our response to Covid, our economic approach, Brexit, Black Lives Matter, working arrangements. And inevitably the nature of leadership. Donald Trump vs Jacinda Adern is not only a question of traditional left-right politics, gender, age, style, or strategy, but a deep philosophical divide. One represents Veneer Theory, the other Human Kind. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Growing up in Scotland I got more than a fair dose of the Veneer view of the world. I remember as a young student in Edinburgh walking daily past the menacing statue of John Knox, father of Calvinism in Scotland. He looked down at me in a grim, stern way, waving his bible as a warning to behave, or face eternal damnation. After a while I changed my walk to avoid this daily oppressive experience, but it was much harder to avoid the broader cultural pessimism and negativity that was deeply rooted in the nation. Although I lacked the language or conscious awareness, I instinctively knew I needed to get out of there, at least for a while. Australia offered a certain reprieve, but a nation built upon a prison-colony, colonialism, violence and dispossession meant there was no escape here either.

My struggle to not allow pessimism to grip me, and find and maintain real hope is an ongoing one. It’s hard to completely let go of ingrained beliefs, but I have found enough evidence of kindness, generosity, love, altruism, courage and deep purpose in the world to have landed firmly in the Human Kind camp. But this belief gets shaken sometimes and when it does, I find it affects how I feel, think, live and work. My antidote is to go back to core sources. Wise nurturing books, moving poetry, beautiful music, great literature, long walks by the river, the smell and feel of nature, connecting with people who embody goodness and connection. I have to find a way to lean into this and do my inner work to stay afloat and be fully present, especially when the water is choppy and cold. There is enough pain and despair without me adding to it. But I find even when I overcome the existential hurdle, I still face a significant strategic challenge of ‘what to do?’

What does the Adaptive framework offer us in relation to this question?

In this struggle I find myself returning to and wrestling with core models and the foundations of my practice. Do they stand solid and continue to serve me in this changing context, or take me down some unhelpful intellectual cul-de-sac? An approach to leadership that has its original text named ‘Leadership Without Easy Answers’ offers a pretty clear signal about its relationship with reality. No shirking from the tough realities of the world. Turn the heat up. Don’t avoid the work. Generate disequilibrium. Bring conflict out. Ask the hard questions.  This stuff is not for shrinking violets.

If it passes the ‘reality test’ with flying colours, what does it offer us in the hopes stake? It is interesting that there are no index references to ‘Hope’ in any of Heifetz’s three books. The final chapter of Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership On The Line however presents a powerful and moving examination of the ‘Sacred Heart’, and the importance of maintaining innocence, curiosity and compassion in our work, including the apt warning: “The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself.” I find this chapter a beautiful, tender and inspiring end to their book. I also worry that this critical part of their work can be lost, undervalued or marginalised. I’ve seen fellow practitioners take groups to tough and dark places, with no light or pathway out. I fear I may have been guilty of this on occasion too, and I now wonder of both the ethics and use of this. Leaving people grappling with the difficulties of life doesn’t cut it.

The practice of adaptive leadership feels more relevant and important than ever, but it also leaves me asking myself many questions about our practice, including:

  • What awareness do we need to use this model wisely and compassionately?
  • Does our adaptive practice offer enough of a path towards progress?
  • In what ways might we need to modulate our practice to be useful in this moment?  
  • What assumptions are we making that might be blinding us?
  • What adaptation do we need to undertake to thrive and offer value in this period?
  • What does ‘productive disequilibrium’ look like working in this challenging period, as we stare at our clients on a screen?
  • What do our people most need from us over the coming months?
  •  And, what’s the conversation we need to be having as fellow practitioners to support us on this path?

To paraphrase, ‘questions without easy answers’, but important ones to lean into.

So we have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”

Victor Frankl (1905-97)