Hope and Purpose in Uncertainty

A guest piece by Rob McKenna on the action needed to maintain hope and purpose.

Posted Dec 17, 2020

This guest post is written by Rob McKenna.

Kristel Hayes/Unsplash
Source: Kristel Hayes/Unsplash

Hope is a funny thing. It’s something we all aspire to feel, but it is only as real as its nemesis—hopelessness. Hope is an aspiration, a faith or belief in something we can’t prove will happen, but we hope for nonetheless. With hope we move one step closer to wholeness, and without it we are lost. 

2020 was a year where hope went from a nice idea to a daily need for so many, and 2021 will likely be no different. In a season with so much uncertainty about where things will finish, what is the relevance of hope? Is hope something we sit back and “hope” for, or do we have a role in our own hopefulness? 

Leaders and Hope

We have dedicated our lives to the intentional development of a generation of courageous and sacrificial leaders. Our belief is that the leaders who will have the greatest impact on the most overwhelming needs of our world will be those who bring enough courage and efficacy to take the risk to lead, and the character to know when to step back, or even to sacrifice something personal for those they serve. When it comes to leadership, hope gets even more complex, because leaders are not only responsible for maintaining their own hope, but inviting others in their influence into the possibility that a brighter future might be just ahead.

We have also had the opportunity to study the journey, character, and competence of thousands of leaders, and it’s been impossible to ignore the power of hope in the developmental tapestry of every person in our research. What we have found is that hope is not only an aspiration, but a mindset and even an action. It is not any one of those things, but all three. 

Leaders and Purpose

Purpose has been equally compelling in this season. If this moment in history has given us any gift, it has shown us that where our purpose was clear and compelling, it remains. And, if our purpose was abstract or absent, it is glaringly obvious. These times of uncertainty have exposed our roots, or lack thereof, and have opened up conversations regarding purpose that may not have been forced to surface before our world shifted. If hope is the wind that drives us forward as leaders, especially when the future is uncertain, purpose is the keel that drives deep into the water and steadies us when the storms around us rage into chaos. 

Purpose and Hope in Action

We have spent years studying the impact of different variables on the capacity of an individual leader to maintain their composure under pressure and in times of uncertainty. We studied dozens of variables, and the two most powerful factors were a leader's sense of purpose and a leader's capacity to maintain a focus on potential—a hopefulness. Leaders who actively engage in the practice of clarifying why they are in specific situations deal better with uncertainty and pressure, but hope was a very close second. More specifically, it was a focus on positive potential outcomes in the midst of the barriers and obstacles that was the second most powerful key ingredient. 

What’s also compelling about hope is that while it is a faith in something different and better, it also includes intention and action. In other words, there might be something we can do about it to increase our capacity to navigate the storms. Individuals who maintain a focus on what could be are willing to look for the multiple, positive potential outcomes on the horizon when the rest of us may only see barriers. This “hope in action” is not a disconnect from the harsh and uncertain reality we may be facing, but a strategic and intentional identification of the potential in any and every situation. While this may be a good idea for all of us, it’s a necessity for those who have responsibility for the work and development of others. Whether we are parents or presidents, a focus on potential is just as important as any budget, meeting, recital, or item on our agenda. 

Where Do We Start?

Why are you here? Knowing why we are in any situation is just as important as anything we do. Most of us will default to action, but taking a moment to actively reflect on our purpose for being in the place we find ourselves is the best place to start. Whether you are entering into a conversation with your teenage daughter, a team member, or a client, the place to start is to get clear about why you are her parent, his manager, or in that business relationship. If the purpose ends with something that only serves you, then think again. Why are you there for you, and most importantly, for them? If you don’t like your answer, keep processing it. An anchoring purpose connects to something that matters for you and for others.

Now you know why you are in it. The next step is to actively build hopeful pathways. If you have that difficult conversation with your daughter, your team member, or that client, what are the five possibilities that may open up for them, and for you? It is too easy to default to all the barriers or negative possibilities. Actively engaging in your own hopeful possibilities creates pathways to increased hopefulness and likely will bring those possibilities closer to realities. The stakes are too high for us to ignore the power of purpose and hope in the equations of our forward progressions, and getting there simply starts with two questions. Why am I here at this moment? What positive potential outcomes may surface, regardless of how uncertain or chaotic it gets?

Rob McKenna, used with permission
Source: Rob McKenna, used with permission

About the Author: Recently named among the top 30 most influential I-O Psychologists and featured in Forbes, Dr. Rob McKenna is the founder of WiLD Leaders, Inc. and The WiLD Foundation, and creator of the WiLD Toolkit. His research and coaching with leaders across corporate, not-for-profit and university settings has given him insight into the real and gritty experience of leaders. His latest book, Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure, focuses on the specific strategies leaders can use to stay true to themselves and connected to others when it matters most. 


McKenna, R. B., & Yost, P. R. (2004). The differentiated leader: Specific strategies for handling today’s adverse situations. Organizational Dynamics, 33, 292- 306.

McKenna, R. B., Haney, D., Osterdahl, S., & Redding (2015). The Leadership Pressure Paradox: Identifying Competing Pressures on Leaders. Poster presented at the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Philadelphia, PA.