Last month, as I was helping my daughter Kaitlyn with an English assignment, she described to me the time-honored performing arts ritual of turning on a small, single-bulb light to illuminate the stage at night—while the theater is closed. My 15-year-old aspiring Broadway actress told me it’s called a “ghost light.”
There are many superstitions expounding this custom—after all, the theater is home to many of history’s most masterful storytellers. One of the most widely accepted myths is that every theater harbors a ghost, and the ghost light glows at night to provide these spirits with a place to perform.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most theaters to go dark, sidelining tens of thousands of thespians around the world. The closing of theaters has also left scores of performing arts enthusiasts with nowhere to satisfy their voracious theatrical appetites. Consequently, the ghost light now serves a more significant purpose than ever. From Broadway to the West End, ghost lights have been left burning by stage managers around the world as a beacon of hope that the show will go on.
If there is one thing 2020 revealed, it is humanity’s universal need for hope, and our distinctly human capacity to share it. Having a purpose, mission, calling, or whatever you prefer to call it is important. But sharing it—our hope for a better world and our selfless care for other people—is infinitely more rewarding.
Several organizations and people have been doing just that.
In Zermatt, Switzerland, light artist Gerry Hofstetter projected a unifying message of hope onto the face of Matterhorn mountain. Every day between March 24 and April 26, the world-renowned artist illuminated the 15,000-foot vista with a different inspiring symbol or phrase, including the words “Hope,” “Solidarity,” and “Together”; the images of a candle and red heart; and the flags of more than two dozen nations, including Iran, South Africa, Switzerland, Italy, India, China, and the United States. “The light is a sign of hope that our six-person team is giving the world,” Hofstetter told a Swiss news outlet.
In 2019 the financial services firm Edward Jones placed an empty chair on the stage at its annual leadership conference to represent the challenges confronting their clients and their communities. To this day, the empty chair remains a symbolic centerpiece in leadership conversations as the company strives to keep its clients, their families, and their communities top of mind and at the forefront of their decision-making.
The NFL’s Seattle Seahawks continued the tradition of raising its “12th Man” flag at games with no fans in attendance. Flying the flag in an empty stadium—normally one of the most ear-piercing arenas in the league—let Seahawks fans know that they were with the team in spirit and that they will soon be filling Lumen Field again.
If there is a silver lining to 2020 that these and countless other examples spotlight, it is that hope rose like a phoenix from the ashes of this cataclysmic year.
Warren Bennis, the late University of Southern California leadership professor and author of On Becoming a Leader, wrote: “The opposite of hope is despair—and when we despair, it is because we feel there are no choices.” Put simply, 2021 needs our individual and organizational ghost lights to radiate brighter than ever, and in doing so, we will blaze a path out of this dark valley of despair toward that flicker of hope dancing on the horizon.
Let there be no mistake: Doing this is much easier said than done. Finding and shining our ghost light requires that we dig deep to understand what matters and identify the hope that we and our organizations can gift the world.
For me, I rekindled my ghost light this past year as an executive in residence at African Leadership University, situated on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius—a gleaming torch that returned to the United States with me in August when I joined the faculty at Syracuse University. As I look ahead to 2021, I plan to keep lighting the way forward for my students as they prepare for a life of impact. Whether they’re attending class in person or remotely, I’m ready to help them make their mark in the world.
In U2’s “Song for Someone,” Bono reminds us, “There is a light. Don’t let it go out.” Now more than ever, it is time to turn our meticulously manicured missions into mountain-moving movements. It is time to convert our carefully crafted callings into irresistible calling cards. It is time to recast our perfectly polished purpose statements into an infectious passion capable of slaying the most contagious diseases and societal cancers.
President-elect Joe Biden concluded his acceptance speech in November with the story about how his grandfather would say, “Joey, keep the faith,” then his grandmother would follow with, “No, Joey, spread it.”
In 2021, how will you spread your faith in humanity’s resilience? What lonely flag will you raise? What silent voice will you create a seat at the table for? What dark, icy, and distant summit will you illuminate? This is your moment to find your stage, switch on your ghost light, and share some hope.
Together, we can—and will—ensure that the show will go on.
Jim Olson is a public relations professor of practice at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and a former corporate communications executive at United Airlines, Starbucks, and US Airways.