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Americans' confidence in leaders hits new low

COMMENTARY No surprise! Americans' confidence in their leaders has declined to another low.

According to the 2011 National Leadership Index produced by the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, 77 percent of those surveyed said there is a crisis of leadership in our country. An equal number believe that "unless we get better leaders, the United States will decline as a nation." Only 21 percent believe that our leaders are "effective and do a good job."

Given that our nation remains mired in the aftermath of the Great Recession and there is political gridlock in Washington, these results are not surprising. The challenge is what to do about them.

Perhaps the answer lies in the only two sectors of public life where confidence in leadership remains above average -- the medical and military establishments. (Although even both of those areas saw some decline, the survey shows.) But a common factor in both medicine and the military might be their adherence to a strong sense of purpose and values.

Both the military and medical services are mission driven. For the military, it is to follow the directives of the commander-in-chief and provide national security. For the past decade, that directive has lead to prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also has meant protecting the peace through rescue and relief operations, as well as intelligence surveillance.

For those in the medical field -- chiefly practitioners -- the mission is a combination of prevention and treatment. That is, help people stay well, and if they become ill, intervene accordingly.

In short, leaders in both medicine and the military know what they are supposed to do -- and they do it. (They also share a sense of serious consequences: If the mission becomes muddled, as it does in war or in the treatment of disease, suffering results.) This sense of purpose is something that focuses individuals. When reinforced with appropriate values -- belief in the cause and a commitment to service -- the organizations can accomplish great things.

The lesson for leaders everywhere is to understand what your purpose is and deliver on it. The good news here is that most companies have a strong purpose. The bad news is they too often ignore it. It therefore falls to leaders to mine the purpose of an organization and ensure that everyone knows his or her job, and can deliver on it. So try this at your next staff meeting. Ask three questions:

-- What does our organization do, and why?

-- How does our team contribute to that purpose?

-- What can we do better to ensure that everyone understands what our purpose is?

Although these questions may seem academic, their intention is not. It is up to the leader to draw the link between what a leader does, and why it matters. To drive these links, leaders connect individual actions to collective contributions.

As the Harvard survey demonstrates, although people believe there is a crisis of leadership, they also understand that leadership is necessary for the nation to succeed. Understanding how purpose plays a role can help leaders maintain the focus they need to help their organizations succeed.

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