Leading Through Adversity:  You as an Agent of Hope

By Joe Schroeder, Ph.D., Associate Executive Director, AWSA

As we return to school and continue leading through this unique moment in time, our ability to demonstrate hope in our own lives and build such capacity in others will be a key difference in the amount of positive influence we can generate.  Research is clear that hope is not some starry-eyed distraction but rather an asset that can be both measured and used as one of the best predictors of future wellbeing.  It turns out that hope, at its essence, is a way of thinking, which means that hope is something that can be taught and grown.  Therefore, in a time when so many continue to struggle, has the cultivation of hope ever been more important? 

A prominent thought leader in what we now know about the science and power of hope comes from the ongoing scholarship of Dr. Chan Hellman of the University of Oklahoma, who defines hope as the belief that:  

1) Your future will be better than today and
2) You have the power to make it so. 

Three components are needed to grow hope:  goals, pathways, and agency.

  • Goals are the cornerstone of hope. 

  • Pathways refer to the ability to identify routes toward goals and to find new pathways (i.e., problem solve) around obstacles if necessary.

  • Agency (i.e., willpower) is the ability to sustain motivation to move along these pathways.

But choose your words carefully because in today’s world, we often confuse wishing with hoping, which clouds our thinking and ability to act.  For example, we might say something like “I hope that you are doing well.”  Something like this is actually a wish in that, although we desire for an outcome, we have no real pathway to achieve that for the other so we are likely passive in it.  In contrast, hope is about taking action in pursuit of a preferred future.  Specifically, hope is about people having both pathways and agency in pursuit of desirable goals.

Among several key findings from Hellman’s research are the following: 

  1. Imagination is the instrument of hope in that we must visualize ourselves into that future context as described by a goal.  So how can you help more students/staff envision themselves thriving in a preferred future? 

  1. If hope is to be developed, there must be meaningful goals – meaningful from the perspective of the given person (as it’s their goal for themselves, not our goal for them) that matters.  Importantly, the more one desires a goal, the more the person is going to take on adversity to overcome it.  That’s why goals are the cornerstone for building hope.

  1. Hope begets hope.  Specifically, one opportunity for successful action shows one that the future is possible so that the next positive step is more likely.  This is the pathway of successive actions that help shift “I can’t” to “I can.”  So how do we help others experience early success toward a preferred goal so that more hope and wellbeing can be cultivated?

  1. Finally, the research shows that hope is a social gift – not something that happens in isolation within us but rather something that arises through interpersonal relationships.  In short, our connectedness with each other and with something greater than ourselves is one of the greatest predictors of hope and, thus, future wellbeing.  So as the new school year arrives, consider how you can model hope and build it in others through increased intentionality about social connectedness.

In summary, at the center of change is our ability to understand the way things are right now in our lives and that we can begin to imagine the ways things could be.  This is where hope is born.  So as we get 2022-23 underway, let us be agents of hope for those in our circle and be heartened in our leadership by none other than the giant of classic childhood literature, Winnie the Pooh:  “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  Indeed!  Never doubt, school leaders, that you were made for just such a time and place as this – and you are never alone!  Thank you for your ongoing service.  We are so very grateful.  Now go take on the year….



Gwinn, C. & Chan, C. (2022). Hope rising:  How the science of hope can change your life. New York: Morgan James Publishing.