Last week Watson Wyatt Worldwide released a report on "Bridging the Employee Engagement Gap" based on data from the WorkEurope™ survey report. According to that study "The top three drivers of both engagement and retention among European employees are strategic direction and leadership, communication, and customer focus." Not only is this true in Europe, in prior studies Watson Wyatt found this to also be true in the United States and Asia. "Business leaders who articulate the business strategy give employees a clear 'line of sight' to how they can best contribute to the performance of their company," said Andrew Cocks, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt.
None of this should be a surprise to readers of The Leadership Challenge who know that in our research we find that Inspiring a Shared Vision is one of the Five Practices that contributes to getting extraordinary things done, and that being forward-looking is the quality that differentiated admired leaders from other credible people. That's the good news. Here's the bad news: Ever since we started measuring leadership practices this is the competency that's the least understood, appreciated, and demonstrated. Leaders report that they're not very good at or comfortable with envisioning the future and enlisting others in a common vision. The feedback from their constituents is even more negative. This is the skill set at which the vast majority of leaders need to become significantly more capable.
If there's reliable evidence and general consensus that it's so important for leaders to articulate a vision and get others excited about it, why do leaders do so poorly at it? We talked about this in an essay in A Leader's Legacy where we wrote that whenever we ask our clients and students about these low scores the most frequent explanation is that people and organizations today are hostage to the present. The demands of our business culture, people say, keep us focused on the quarterly profits, preventing leaders from spending enough time thinking beyond the next three months. In nonprofits and government agencies, it's the current crisis that consumes the majority of our time.
Is there anything leaders and leadership developers can do? Yes, absolutely! Despite the daily pressures that hold our minds hostage, we can be more future-oriented. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the best place to start creating the future is by being more mindful in the present. Our failure at being forward-looking may be more due to our mindlessness in the present than any other factor. We operate on automatic pilot, not really noticing what's going on around us, believing that we know everything we need to know, viewing the world through pre-established categories, and operating from a single point of view. We're not really "present" at all. Our bodies may be in the room, but our mind has been turned off.
To increase our ability to conceive of new and creative solutions to today's problems, we have to stop, look, and listen. We have to stop doing for some amount of time each day. We have to remind ourselves that most of the disruptive electronic devices have an off switch. Turn off the cell phone, the pager, the Instant Messaging, the email, the PDA, and the browser. Stop being in motion.
Perhaps the single most important resolution we can make for the New Year that is fast approaching is to pay attention. Look around. Look at the familiar in novel ways. Look for differences and distinctions. Look for patterns. Look at things from multiple perspectives. Look for unmet needs. Listen to the weak signals. Listen to the unheard voices. Listen for things you've never heard before. When we stop, look, and listen we're always amazed at all the possibilities.