These are hard times we live in, and that creates special challenges for leaders.
Fewer than half of Americans (44 percent) believe that the country will be "doing very or fairly well" a year from now. That, according to a CNN/ORC poll, represents a drop in optimism of nearly 20 percentage points since 2009.
Not only is that bad for incumbent elected officials, it is also not good for business.
Furthermore, with the European debt crisis continuing to rattle the capital markets, it's not surprising that consumer confidence remains weak. In October the consumer confidence index as reported by the Conference Board was 39.8. That is better than the 26.9 figure of early 2009 but well below 90, a figure consistent with economic prosperity.
Such unease not only weakens hopes for retailers, it should also send a signal to leaders of all organizations that people -- and that means employees -- are feeling uneasy. For example, the number of people who expect they will get a raise is minimized by the fact that twice as many feel their pay will be cut.
There's no doubt about it: businesses and employees are gloomy. So what's a leader to do?
Importantly, leaders must acknowledge reality: the economic downturn has profoundly altered the landscape. Expectations for success and prosperity are diminished. Things that many of us counted on as rock solid -- pensions and the federal government -- have eroded.
This is not news, but it does form a foundation for what smart leaders do next. And based on research I conducted for my newest book, Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself, there is much more leaders can do.
First and foremost, leaders need to demonstrate purpose. I like to think of purpose as the what, why and how of an organization. Knowing what you want to do it and the way you want to do it leads to how. And in my discussions with thought leaders and CEOs from the profit and nonprofit sectors, purpose can be the abiding truth that everyone holds dear. That challenge is for leaders to deliver on it. Here's how to do it:
Communicate the vision. Employees want to know where the organization is headed and how it will get there. Leaders who share that direction are those who have a better chance of fulfilling the vision.
Instill purpose in others. No leader can, nor should, do it alone. Leaders make the organization's purpose resonant when they set the right example, but they do better when they set expectations, support efforts to attain goals and reward everyone for achieving intended results.
Provide clarity. Uncertainty may prevail externally but inside the organization leaders must strive to "square the circle." That means they frame obstacles to progress in ways that enable people to see and develop solutions.
Deliver on the future. Organizations that withstand crises are those that have a solid bench of capable leaders not just at the top, but throughout the entire organization. It is important to develop them and that requires commitment and attention.
These are straightforward propositions but they take time to take hold. The good news is that such things do not require an investment of capital. They do, however, require an investment of something even more precious -- the commitment of self.
When employees see their leaders sharing in the hardship as well as the rewards, it stimulates a greater sense of trust. And when they see their leaders behave in ways that enable others to succeed, they feel even better. Such a sense of purpose rekindles confidence and optimism and lays the foundation for a better tomorrow.