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Communicating Optimism and Hope

The importance and power of a positive perspective.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan, 2005). This is about leadership, but as any pastor knows, church leadership begins in the pulpit. We felt this counsel about the importance of hope would be especially relevant for preachers, for hope rides and rests on the Word.

Longer than anyone else, decade after decade after decade, Billy Graham has been included in Good Housekeeping's most-admired list. Over the years, presidents and other luminaries have appeared, then faded. But Billy has always been at or near the top of the list.

One day Fred Smith, who had chaired one of Billy's Cincinnati crusades, asked us, "Have you thought about the Good Housekeeping list?"

"Not particularly."

"Take a close look. Every person on it is positive."

To define reality and lead effectively, one must discover a reality resonant with hope.

When thinking about those who have appeared on the list, images come quickly to mind. Dwight Eisenhower's big, broad smile. John F. Kennedy's vigor and crinkly-eyed humor. Billy Graham's warm gaze beside his wife, Ruth. Yes, year after year, virtually everyone on the list is positive, including Billy Graham. He may talk about sin and its tragic effects, but we resonate with his positive message of new life and hope.

A leader's task, we're told by businessman Max DePree, is to define reality. That requires more than projecting short- or long-term goals or declaring a multiyear focus. To cast a positive vision, a leader must wrestle with enough of life's enigmas to not get blindsided by the unforeseen. To define reality and lead effectively, one must discover a reality resonant with hope.

Said Martin Luther, "Everything that is done in the world is done by hope." The truth Luther expressed is timeless. His namesake, Martin Luther King Jr.—though separated by centuries—applied it to modern times: "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

As a college president, Jay Kesler found that if he went public with discouragement, the whole campus could be affected. Just saying he felt "down" one day could cause groups to buzz with the news, "Jay's discouraged. We're in trouble."

Jay learned he had to stay "up," or at least limit voicing his discouragements to those capable of hearing them and helping. "The larger group needs leadership," Jay says. "It's not deception or subterfuge to be optimistic, to be excited, to encourage others to believe in God. It's just one of the elements needed in a leader."

Jay uses the illustration of the film El Cid. Charlton Heston, in the title role, was leading the Spanish army in a series of battles against the invading Moors. Just before the climactic confrontation, he was mortally wounded. His presence on the battlefield, however, was so important to the morale of his army that his officers fastened him in his saddle and propped him upright so he could lead his troops into the fray. Seeing their leader before them, the Spanish soldiers took heart and fought on to victory.

If El Cid had not been there, or if he had slumped in the saddle, his army might have lost heart and gone down to defeat.

"That's the way it is with much of life," Jay said to us. "There are so many battles won or lost depending on whether the people involved hang on just a little bit longer. So the leader has a primary obligation not to declare doubts or failures at the drop of a hat."

Fred Smith agrees. "Leadership means plugging away until the breakthrough comes." He also makes this pungent observation: "The energy needed to retreat might have been just the amount needed to succeed."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible." Jesus said that all things were possible if we would believe.

In a period of distress, a leader's outward display of courage and confidence is vital. The lack of it can cause a group's resolve to melt.

"Confidence and optimism are essential," writes Michael Useem in Fast Company. "It's not faking it. It's remaining optimistic through the most trying times, even when it looks pretty dark. Think about Nelson Mandela. Twenty-seven years of prison. I have to imagine he got a little discouraged, but from all accounts, he never wavered in his confidence that one day South Africa would be a multiracial democracy. I am sure a few African National Congress people in prison with him said, 'Nelson, you're full of it. This is ridiculous. Your optimism is misplaced here.'

"And in his deepest inner moments, I am sure Mandela had doubts. But outwardly, it's critical to have that sense of optimism. As long as you believe it's true and communicate that back to the people you lead, you overcome any inauthenticity."

In contrast, an absence of hope permeates today's affluent societies. Billy Graham has expressed strong concerns about this, going beyond simply wringing his hands. He has spoken out with a call to embrace hope, quoting noted physicians who prescribe hope as curative, based on clinical studies. "Hope is both biologically and psychologically vital," Billy stated. "Men and women must have hope."

Leaders understand this. If doctors see hope as dramatically effective medicine, leaders need to also wisely and liberally dispense it to those who look to them to "define reality."

All this comes down to day-by-day leaders, when we touch others who catch our spirit. Says Amway founder Richard M. DeVos, "Few things in the world are more powerful than a positive push. A smile, a word of optimism, and hope."

Crises in some form come to every leader. Those caused by evil intent can create anger and thirst for revenge. But responding in kind chills a leader's ability to deal with the new realities.

David Sarnoff, former head of RCA, advised, "Let us not paralyze our capacity for good by brooding over man's capacity for evil."

In 2001, after the tragic events of 9/11, many felt paralysis as on television they saw over and over the results of "man's capacity for evil." Billy Graham was called on to bring hope and meaning to his stunned fellow citizens.

What could he say? He knew his message in the National Cathedral just three days after the devastation would be viewed by millions around the globe.

Billy spoke with a mature empathy born from experience. He not only felt the shock and dismay himself but put himself in the place of his listeners. He assured them God understood their feelings about the terrible carnage. He spoke of tragedy and evil and suffering, but that God is a God of love, mercy, and compassion. "Who can understand it?" he asked, honestly.

Then he communicated hope. "I've become an old man now," he said, "and the older I get, the more I cling to that hope that I started with many years ago." Billy spoke of Ambassador Andrew Young, who, after the tragic death of his wife, quoted from the old hymn "How Firm a Foundation": "We all watched in horror as planes crashed into the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. Those majestic towers, built on solid foundations, were examples of the prosperity and creativity of America. When damaged, those buildings eventually plummeted to the ground, imploding upon themselves. Yet underneath the debris is a foundation that was not destroyed. Therein lays the truth of that old hymn that Andrew Young quoted: 'How firm a foundation.'

"Yes, our nation has been attacked. Buildings destroyed. Lives lost. But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people, and a nation, or whether we choose to become stronger."

Billy identified with those who long for leadership in the maelstrom. He gave them both specific responses to the obvious questions and a basis for hope. Among his concluding words were these: "My prayer today is that we will feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us."

We may not be called on to speak to large audiences in crisis, but the small audiences we do have—maybe just one person— need to hear in context the positive messages so necessary. As Billy has said, "Men and women must have hope."

Harold Myra served as president and CEO of Christianity Today International. He is co-author of The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan).

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