The most powerful leadership lesson I’ve learned

In graduate school I took a class on “Leaders and Leadership” that I hoped would give me respite from the grind of finance and economics. It turned out to be one of the most interesting classes I ever attended and it set me on life-long study of leaders.

When I worked for Alcoa, there was one Group President who seemed to personify the best theoretical aspects of a leader. His name was George Bergeron, since retired to Maine and Florida, but there is not a week that goes by that I don’t think about a small sign he had on his desk:

“Leaders Dispense Hope.”

George was not a rah-rah kind of leader. He walked his talk without gimmicks, inspirational posters or “programs.” In fact, other than a few family pictures, that sign was the only adornment on his desk at all.

Those powerful three words sum up so much to me. To be in a position to “dispense hope,” you need to

  • Be trusted
  • Have a vision that others understand and believe in
  • Be an effective communicator
  • Rise above the every day office noise to deliver the signal
  • Be recognized as the authority
  • Have a real plan, not rhetoric
  • Transcend politics
  • Deliver authentic optimism

Like any executive in a  competitive environment, George had his detractors. But he rose above it all with dignity at every opportunity. No matter what was happening in the world, in the company, or with our customers, George dispensed hope.  A lesson in leadership for a world that needs a few lessons in leadership.

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  • Perhaps it would serve all of us well to have the same words on our desk Mark.

    Thank you so much for the inspiring words!

    Paul Castain

  • I just finished reading Good to Great. Yes, I know it’s sad that I have a graduate degree in business and only just finished that book. Regardless, if you’ve read it, you’re probably familiar with their whole discussion about how the good-to-great leaders lead through quiet consistency as opposed to pomp and circumstance. That was immediately what I thought of when you mentioned how spartan George’s desk was.

  • And we could sure use that these days! Good reminder…one of the best leaders I know is my Dad~a retired Presbyterian preacher (yeah, I’m a pk) who is not only inspiring but also raised millions of dollars for every church he led. He led with hope, faith, facts and encouraged people to achieve! People still follow him but he’s not on Twitter!

  • Mark

    @Paul — Honored to have you stop by. Thanks!

    @Eric — That is one of my all-time favorite books. Thanks for making that connection!

    @Amy — Wow, what a great role model. Thanks so much for sharing today!

  • Michael Taggart

    Thanks Mark, this is always a fasciating and fundamentally important topic and we all need to know what good leadership means.

    I agree with your list with the caviat that I’d ask you to qualify what you mean by “transcend politics”. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Ghandi certainly didn’t rise above politics. tell us that ‘politics’ is a descriptor derived from Aristotle’s “ta politika” or “affairs of state”. Today, it’s the way by which those who practice leadership continue to be able to do so.

    Maybe you mean the politics of personal gain, rather than retention of the power that allows benevolent leadership.

    At the risk of contradicting what I have just said, I would add to the list that leaders transcend hierarchies. By that, I mean there are many leaders around who do not lead their organisations or teams in a traditional sense. Just as there are many traditional leaders who do not actually lead.

  • Mark – I did enjoy this post. I am though a little wary of “hope” as a leadership concept. It can lead to people/followers/staff sitting back and waiting for the leader to act or make happen, rather than taking action themselves. How about “leaders dispense possibility”? As a CEO, I want to empower my teams and inspire them to take the actions and become leaders themselves…

  • Mark

    @Michael — Really thought-provoking points. In the USA, “politics” in reference to a company generally has a negative connotation meaning the bureaucratic roadblocks people and organizations put in your place. Thanks for calling me out on this and correctly demonstrating another meaning of the word, particularly on the world stage. Thanks for the very thought-provoking comments!

    @Sarah — Really interesting concept. I’ve read about the connections between loyalty to a religion and building loyalty in general and “hope” seems to be a pre-requisite to both. This was especially meaningful to me when slogging through a lot of difficult economic times with my company. In that case, “hope” had to come before “possibility!” : ) Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution to the dialogue!

  • I like that notion that leaders dish hope even better than my own definition that I’ve remembered forever, that they inspire. You can always recall the leaders that you’ve met in your life (which are very few) especially at times when you are put in a position to make tough decisions. I guess that recollection can help you get through those tough spots like a source of hope instead of inspiration which is usually short lived.

  • I wish I’d had the pleasure and good fortune to work for/with George. Leaders Dispense Hope, I love that.

    Parenting two young teens is demanding any and all Leadership ability I’ve managed to accumulate over the years. Sometimes I get so caught up in my role as Responsibility Police that it’s not until the end of the day that I realize upon reflection that I may not have done what was best in a given situation – though often, I’ve done MY best.

    It’s so easy to react to what is immediately taking place rather than responding with the Grander Vision in mind.

    So, for me: Parents dispense Hope and inspire Capacity without losing sight of the Grander Vision.

    Only THEN, do they resort to, “Someone please shoot me.”

  • Mark

    @Johnny — It is true that the great leaders in life also stand out as role models and inspiration long after you have been in their sphere. Wouldn’t that be a great place for all of us to try to aspire to? Thanks for your thoughts!

    @Sally — I think it was the Harvard Business Review that ran an article comparing leadership to parenting. I can certainly relate to that! You nurture your minions, help them move ahead in life, and know that if you do a good job it will be one of the most rewarding experiences in life! Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to add your thoughts Sally!

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  • Nathan

    and great businesses “sell” hope… wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

  • “Leaders dispense hope.”

    So simple. So true. And precisely why we need to keep helping everyone become leaders. Imagine if we all led in some way or other?

  • Wonderful post and simple truth.

    My 2 cents – not only do they dispense hope – they lead hope-filled lives as individual flawed human beings. I love that some of the previous commentators used Mandela and Dr. King as examples. Both in my top five leaders I’d love to dine with had very complex relationships with others especially those close to them. Despite that – they led hope filled existences in spite of what they saw in front of them or perhaps BECAUSE of what they saw. They knew – only hope could drive them to their destination.

    Thanks for enabling the powerful personal reflection.


  • Mark

    @Nathan — Thanks Captain Cryptic : )

    @Danny — It’s a state of mind as much as anything isn’t it?

    @Denise — Thank you so very much for adding this beautiful thought today!

  • Once again Mark, thank you for a great post and the opportunity to join and participate in the discussion.

    For me, leadership is about using my creativity and enthusiasm to encourage, inspire and support others to be great and do great things while staying true to my word, principles and core values of working together as a family using teamwork to contribute daily to the quality of life.

  • Mark, as a leader yourself, you dispense hope along with humor and wisdom. That’s a great formula for contagious optimism and a business with contagious optimism is a great place to work and work with.

  • Mark

    @Rae — Thanks for this very cool perspective!

    @Billy — Except when I play golf. : )

  • My pleasure Mark : )
    Enjoy your weekend everyone!

  • Trust = Character + Competence

    In his book, The Speed of Trust, Steve Covey (the younger) defines trust in two dimensions: Character & Competence. Leaders must possess both to be truly credible and inspire others. I’m glad you listed Trust first, Mark. Great post.

  • Mark

    @Mike — Love that observation. Trust is certainly the foundation of every meaningful relationship!

  • Hope, trust, authenticity.  Terrific leadership qualities!

  • Scott

    Hope is a quality that is needed in so many organization, I would imagine.  With the economy receding like my hairline, jobless rates going up, insurance rates sky rocketing, we need to be able to have hope in something.  It amazes me that when a leader dispenses hope, people take notice and respond.  I want to be in the business of hope.  Thanks for the post, it was very encouraging!

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  • 2381Dariy

    You all are nerds. I’d hate to be you.

  • 2381Dariy

    All you need to do is say you like it and quit being fat cows and stop hogging the computer.

  • 2381Dariy


  • 2381Dariy

    Mike, you’re a piece of shitaki mushroom.

  • 2381Dariy

    I’M NOT HAVING ANY FUN HERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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