The economy is in a foul mood, and it's not being nice to anyone. You can be an eighty-year old banking icon or high-tech startup with ink still wet on the incorporation papers, and this market is going to mess with you. In my last three phone calls with clients, I have heard stories about layoffs of hundreds of middle managers, declining sales in retail stores, and no upward mobility in the firm "for the first time in our history." And on all these calls I have been asked if I might share some thoughts about what leaders can do to keep people engaged and inspired in times like these.
The calls bring to mind a comment made by John McDonnell, former CEO of McDonnell Douglas, when that company was going through its struggles before eventually merging with Boeing. "Adversity introduces you to yourself," he said, reflecting upon what that struggle had brought for him. And another thought from Randy Melville whom we interviewed when he was with Pepsi. Quoting his Princeton University basketball coach, Pete Carril, Randy said, "Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it." Challenges, difficulties, setbacks, adversities…they are all familiar sights on the leadership landscape. And one of the things that they cause us to do is to come face-to-face with ourselves. They are a rather harsh way of reminding us of what's important, what we value, and where we want to go.
Leaders are no strangers to challenges. In fact, exemplary leaders thrive on them. Here are a few tips on what you can do as a leader to enable others to learn to thrive as well. Many are drawn from our own research, but another important resource is Resilience at Work by Salvatore R. Maddi and Deborah M. Khoshaba.
1. Clarify what you value most. Randy Pausch, the professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University who is dying of pancreatic cancer and whose The Last Lecture video (and now #1 bestselling book) struck a chord with millions around the world, has perhaps the best mantra for times like these. "The brick walls are there for a reason," he says. "They're not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something." It's important for leaders to always be clear about values and visions, beliefs and aspirations, but challenging times require being especially clear. Take the time to reassess what's important, where you are headed, and "how badly you want something."
2. Fully commit to what's important. This change warrants your full attention, imagination and effort. There's no holding back when the situation is dire. Elaine Fortier, at the time vice president of HR at New Focus, when talking about the downturn in her industry, “We all have to ask ourselves, ‘How do I go to work today and do something that will move the enterprise forward
and at the same time move myself forward?'" What important shared values and beliefs can you emphasize to keep people engaged? Keep reminding folks of what makes this work meaningful and significant, of the exciting future you can all aspire to achieving together.
3. Embrace the challenge. Exemplary leaders view challenge as opportunity and not as threat. Change always opens up all kinds of new and exciting possibilities for the future. What are those exciting possibilities? What are some innovative solutions that you can explore? How can we go about searching for new and innovative solutions that might lead us out of this situation? How can we make this an engaging learning experience?
4. Paint the big picture. This adverse situation is taking place in a larger context. What's the bigger picture here? How can you help others to understand what's happening in the environment and how it is affecting your business? How can I educate others about the broader context?
5. Engage others. There are others who are being affected by this; it's not just you and your group. You're all in this together. Who else is being impacted? How can you and others engage with them? And also remember that even just having one supportive, stable relationship is a crucial condition for transcending adversity. Social connection and social intimacy are necessary for a joyful life at home and at work. How can you use this opportunity to strengthen relationships with others? Who can you turn to for caring support and wise counsel?
6. Control what you can. You obviously don't control all of what is happening in the broader environment, but you are still in charge of your own lives! What decisions and actions do you and others control? How can you, and others, positively influence the outcome? What factors are in your control, and how can you all stay focused on them?
7. Take charge. People who are proactive are healthier and more successful. Leaders with high hope are not Pollyannas. They acknowledge reality, but they also move quickly to mobilize personal and group resources to deal with the problems. To be sure leaders must analyze and strategize, but they must also make something happen. What actions can I/we do to create forward momentum? What little things can we do to get moving in the right direction? The late Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review and author of 20 books, put it this way when talking about people with serious illnesses who beat the medical odds: "They responded with a fierce determination to overcome. They didn't deny the diagnosis. They denied the verdict that is usually associated with it."
8. Tell positive stories. Looking at the future through a positive lens is characteristic of people exemplary. Optimism is essential I tough times. Having a belief that the future will work out for the best is essential to being upbeat and positive about the outcome. They can always find reasons for hope. What positive steps have we already taken and how can I communicate those to others? What can I do daily to demonstrate a positive and hopeful outlook? What can I do to recognize those who are making a positive contribution? How do I keep myself, and others, enthused about the work that we're doing?
It all boils down to this: Keep hope alive!
"Keep hope alive" is much more than a slogan. Keeping hope alive is essential to energetically achieving the highest levels of performance. People with high hope, compared to people with low hope, have a greater number of goals across various arenas of life, select more difficult goals, see their goals in a more challenging and positive manner, and attain higher grades in school. Keeping hope alive is also essential to an active and healthy life.
Hope is an attitude in action. Hope enables people to mobilize their healing powers and their achieving powers. Hope enables them to transcend the difficulties of today and envision the potentialities of tomorrow. Hope enables people to bounce back even after being bent, stretched, and depressed. Hope enables people to find the will and the way to aspire to greatness. Hope is testimony to the power of the human spirit.