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The Institution of Leadership is in Crisis
I saw a troubling segment on C-Span recently with Gallup executive Jon Clifton, who was talking about trust in American leadership around the world. I was concerned to see that America is less trusted than it’s ever been. This isn’t limited to politics, but appears to cast a shadow over the American public in general, and it has implications for all of us—in business and in everyday life.
What’s more is that global PR giant Edelman, which has been measuring trust for 20 years, has reported significant global declines in business, NGO’s, politics and media. On top of that, in our own study of working Americans, only 1 in 5 said they believe that their organization is led by purposeful leaders. What’s worse is that global employee engagement data from Gallup suggests that disengaged employees outnumber engaged ones by 2 to 1.
So why does this matter?
If you and I are anywhere close to the norm, it means that between 50 and 85 percent of our stakeholders don’t think that we are leading in an engaging, trustworthy or purposeful way. While most of us believe that we are better than average, statistically, half of us are not.
When we aren’t seen as purposeful, we see more turnover, lower productivity, and lower rates of profitability—and failed business initiatives. And, our people are less likely to understand why they are doing what they are doing.
The path out of this crisis starts with being clear about what we are setting out to do, and why this matters. What do our stakeholders expect from us—our employees, customers, bosses, investors, and the world—and how do they think we’re doing right now?
From there, we need to take the time to look at the gap between how we’re currently performing and where we need to be—and put together a plan to bridge the gap. The plan should include daily practices and milestones along the way, not just the end goal. Then, we need to track our progress based on the plan, and have accountability mechanisms in place to check how we are doing. All of these pieces, when carefully put together, will help us build trust.
Yes, we’ll continue to get pulled in different directions and face competing priorities—and that’s OK. We’ll also continue to face tradeoffs. The age old saying still rings true: You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. We’re constantly in a balancing act and our attention is pulled in different directions: Where do we devote our time and attention? How do we handle customer needs versus our employee needs? Short- versus long-term business decisions? Speed versus quality? Focused attention versus work volume? Thinking versus doing… strategy versus execution… and the list goes on.
Think about these as tensions that you need to structure. Instead of treating them as items on your to-do list, adopt a mindset focused on the choices that you get to make in each of these areas—and in the process, get really curious about these choices; don’t strictly manage them. Managing tensions implies that it’s something you have to deal with, something you don’t get a choice about. Structuring tensions suggests that we have a role to play in driving the priorities that are most crucial.
We don’t need to be a political leader or a Fortune 500 executive for this erosion of trust to impact us. And, we have the ability to change things within our own sphere without needing public approval, media coverage, or a board mandate.
Here are three things that we can do today:
1) Start a daily practice. Pick a habit to practice on a daily basis related to building trust, engagement and purpose. For example, I have a notebook that I keep by my coffee pot. I write three things that I’m thankful for each morning and three things that I want to accomplish each day. This keeps me focused and true to my values as a leader and as a person.
2) Find an accountability partner. Seek out a colleague or friend who wants to do this with you. Ideally, this accountability and idea partner is someone who knows what you are trying to get done and why—and can support you in the process while pushing and challenging you.
3) Remember what you’re working towards. Imagine what things will be like when you succeed—when you build trust, purpose and engagement—and don’t lose sight of that. Don’t forget about what could be. This gives us reason to slog through the tedium of day-to-day affairs. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech wasn’t the start of his journey, it was a powerful moment along the way. He didn’t say “I have a plan”—it was a dream! A dream that inspired and united others around him to a cause.
When we marry our daily practices and accountability with what’s possible, we build trust, engagement and followers. No matter where you are in your leadership journey, building your own path to purpose and becoming purposeful will help you become the trusted leader that we all need right now.
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