All Articles Leadership Management Finding strength to learn and lead in tough times

Finding strength to learn and lead in tough times

Appreciative inquiry can help leaders work through periods of despair or other hardship.

5 min read


Uphill climb

Mitchell Orr/Unsplash

“There are times

You are called to new knowing

And you are compelled to answer

There is no point in

Hiding under the covers

Pulling them tight around your ears

Hoping ignorance will reign

When the call comes

It is like a pry bar

Tearing away what you understood

Dissolving what you thought you knew

You may crave the not knowing

But that time has passed you by.”

 ~ Joan McArthur-Blair


Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Jeanie Cockell and Joan McArthur-Blair.

Throughout one’s leadership journey, there will be times when one can’t see the horizon. These are times of despair in which a leader can feel that all hope is lost; that nothing matters anymore.  

No one sets out to suffer despair in a leadership life, but it’s inevitable. Many factors — change, life circumstances, social injustices, fear, organizational shifts and, sometimes, simple weariness — can cause it.

Despair comes in all shapes and sizes, affecting people differently. It can be life-altering for one leader, a glancing blow for another or a challenge in the day to day for someone else. It has its own rhythm and its own time frame; how a leader travels through despair is highly individual.

Yet, we have found that that the ability to be resilient within despair can be augmented by the practices of appreciative inquiry (the focus on what’s working well by engaging people through questions and stories). We have developed a model for what we call “Appreciative Resilience” which uses the power of AI to build the ability to sustain or persevere in the most complex of leadership and life experiences.

Below, we offer ways to focus on the strengths and capabilities that leaders have as they traverse despair for themselves and their teams.

Appreciate. To appreciate in times of despair is both to fully face what is and to find within the dark even the smallest of possible things to value. The focus on what there is to appreciate can ease the burden of despair ever so slightly. The practice of finding things to appreciate grows over time and can add to capacity in times of despair.

Love. Love is about caring for oneself and others in times of despair. This care can be a pillar of support and can help dispel the loneliness that is a constant companion of despair. When working with leaders, we often ask, “Who will reach down a hand and help you stand up in times of despair?” And, we ask, “Do you know how to reach down your hand and help another leader in despair stand?” Being loved and loving others are powerful supports in despair.

Inquire. Appreciative inquiry is all about inquiring into the best of what is — asking positive questions to create positive change. Inquire into what small things are possible to do and then celebrating those things. In times of despair, the world can be dark, but the capacity to be curious enables one to explore the despair, reside in it or move forward.

Track. Leaders track what they want more of from themselves and others. Tracking is looking for and paying attention to what’s working, what strengths are at play; it involves asking questions such as:

  • “What am I doing well?”
  • “What are others doing well?”
  • “What strengths am I demonstrating?”
  • “What strengths are others demonstrating?”

Fan. Fanning, as in fanning the flames of a fire, follows tracking. A leader fans the flames of what’s been tracked into being by acknowledging, through various ways — praise, thanks, acknowledgment of contributions, specific appreciative feedback, and the like — that what has been tracked has been truly seen.

Venture. We believe that leaders have the bravery to rise again. Leaders who venture tap into their courage and the actions that can begin to shift the despair. These actions are highly individual and can be small, yet they evoke the idea that a future is possible after all.

Evolve. Evolving is deeply recognizing that as a leader, one is forever and irrevocably changed by the experience of despair in one’s life. Evolving enables leaders to slowly unfold into the future, taking the lessons of despair with them into new ways of being and doing.

In the absence of hope, leaders still lead. They still go to work and undertake amazing activities, but they do so with a wounded heart and a quieted soul. If our work of focusing on appreciative resilience does nothing else for leaders, perhaps it can uplift the conversation about despair. Despair is a companion of leadership and is without shame.


Jeanie Cockell and Joan McArthur-Blair, co-presidents of the leadership consulting firm Cockell McArthur-Blair Consulting, are the co-authors of “Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry.” The veteran consultants’ latest book explores how leaders can use the practice of appreciative inquiry to weather the storms they’ll inevitably encounter and be appreciatively resilient.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.