Written by Kevin O’Neill
Great leaders do not shrink from the moment. They do just the opposite and lead with purpose and intentionality. When confronted with unprecedented events and major disruptions, they unite the organization around a shared vision for the future and rally the troops to march forward with confidence. These leaders respond to uncertainty by taking purposeful action, setting their team's gaze on that unwavering North Star.
When difficulties arise, employees at all levels want honest answers, bold ideas and decisive plans. They want to trust company leadership to chart a course into the future instead of allowing the business to flounder in the face of change.
It is easy to blame outside forces when a company fails, particularly during turbulent times. My experience working with thousands of CEOs, the good and the not-as-good, has shown me that the line between success and failure — especially in arduous times — hinges on the quality of leadership.
Consider the examples set by Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. When leading Apple and Tesla, respectively, they dealt with economic catastrophes and the hurdles of creating new, disruptive products. They were beset with challenges at every turn, yet both leaders managed to build companies with intensely loyal customers and employees.
Principally, success in business requires a sense of purpose. When surveyed by Quartz Insights and WE, 73% of executives and managers said they predict purpose-driven leadership will become as important to business success as financial performance. Despite that explicit endorsement, a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that only 34% of leaders identify purpose as their primary compass in decision-making. These leaders might understand the importance of purpose, but they don't seem to be doing much about it.
In my experience, that is due to a ubiquitous leadership problem: the inability to transform abstract goals into actionable plans. There is a vast distance between the two, and it's common for strong ideas to get lost in transit. To clear this hurdle — especially during transformative moments such as these — leaders must pair a clear purpose with strategies for centering that purpose within the organization. Here's how:
1. Tailor the purpose story to your audience.
Leaders need to articulate their organization's purpose, describing where the company is, where it's going and how it will get there to make that purpose real for the team. But different audiences need to hear this story in unique ways based on their personal or professional development. Leaders must be able to tailor that story to influence and impact each person individually.
For this to work, executives must create a feedback loop. This loop should enable team members to share information regularly, integrate feedback, course-correct and celebrate victories. Constant communication will ensure everyone is aware of the overarching purpose, creating a sense of belonging and encouraging participation in something greater than themselves — and beyond what they could achieve individually. The best leaders create a sum that is greater than its parts, but they still respect the needs, wants and talents of each individual involved.
2. Define yourself through candor and authenticity.
Executives in my network frequently struggle to strike the right balance when addressing their teams during taxing times. They want to be honest and transparent, but they also recognize the need to be diplomatic and optimistic.
Instead of agonizing over when and how to reveal information, assume the right tone: calm and confident. Real leaders do not just project this, either; they practice principles in their lives that enable them to build their confidence and feel calm in the face of adversity.
I wrestled with this issue in March when I tested positive for Covid-19. My first inclination was to avoid communicating my diagnosis to the team for fear of causing a wave of panic and anxiety. But after thoughtful reflection and competent counsel, I decided it was best to invite people into my story. It demystified and humanized the disease. They saw my face on Zoom and heard the details straight from me, and it was a pressure release for everyone. The team remained calm because I was honest and forthright.
3. Eliminate the noise.
Amid uncertainty and havoc, leaders must help their teams tune out any noise — the situations out of their control — and focus on what matters in the present. As is the case with project management, that means identifying the two or three most important tasks at hand.
Specific and actionable goals can occupy the team's attention and defuse anxiety at a time when distractions are rampant. This approach also keeps people focused on core objectives instead of fighting fires. Great leaders provide a clear focus and savvy guidance at times when everyone wonders what to do next.
Our present difficulties are only the latest in a long line of challenges that the world has thrown at us. Intentional leadership will ensure organizations thrive despite external circumstances. All executives have it within themselves to rise to the occasion — and create better outcomes for the businesses they lead — but only if they make purpose their North Star.
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