By Richard Tyson
In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is part of the migration of dispossessed farmers from the Midwestern Dust Bowl states. The Depression-era story follows their journey from Oklahoma to California.
On the way, they stop briefly at a gas station along Route 66. The station’s proprietor articulates the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: “What’s the country comin’ to?”
With the coronavirus pandemic, political strife and unrest in the streets of America today, that question seems to once again get a lot of airtime. It is often asked with a sense of despair. A May 8 report by CBS News states that “conditions stemming from the novel coronavirus — rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future — could lead to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide …, according to a study by the Well Being Trust.”
Much of the despair that we see today comes from the disruption of our normal lives. For some, job loss is a reality; for nearly all of us, we have faced increased isolation from family and friends. And none of us expected these factors to continue month after month. The future is, indeed, uncertain. We may well ask, “What’s the country (even the world) coming to?”
Psychologists have long proclaimed that uncertainty is a primary cause of depression and despair. Conversely, when we have “certainty,” we have a clear sense of direction, of purpose and meaning in our lives. We know where we are going, and that focal point rewards us with mental, emotional and physical energy — literally the opposite of depression.
19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, echoed those words when he said, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
So what is the role of leaders in today’s uncertain atmosphere? Do we as parents have a clear sense of purpose that we can articulate to our children? Do we as business leaders have a clear sense of why and how we will move forward to succeed in coming days? Have we communicated this in compelling and reassuring ways to those with whom we work, those who we rely on to bring mental, emotional and physical energy to their jobs?
Nick Craig, president of the Core Leadership Institute and author of Leading from Purpose, and Scott Snook, Harvard Business School professor, recently published an article in a special edition of the Harvard Business Review titled “From Purpose to Impact.” Surprisingly, their research reveals that less than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer “can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.”
In less stressful times, these findings might not seem alarming, but given the uncertainties we face today, they demand our attention. Author Simon Sinek counsels leaders to “start with why,” to get clear on your personal and business purpose. He suggests that we are incapable of leading others if we can’t clearly articulate where we are going.
At my company, CEObuilder, we have long asserted that a strong, compelling company vision is essential to business success. Such a vision provides the purpose, mission and values that set the stage for attracting the talent you need to succeed, builds the competency and high engagement required for operational success and assures the customer and financial outcomes you desire.
In these uncertain times, leaders must have a clear vision — for themselves and for those whom they lead. If we are to avoid the despair that so often accompanies uncertainty, we must articulate where we are going. In Proverbs 29:18, it states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Today, these words are hauntingly prophetic. We must not let the people perish; visionary leadership is more important than ever.
Our question shouldn’t be “What is the country (or world) coming to?,” but rather, “Where am I leading my portion of the world to?” If you haven’t articulated your vision, your purpose, your why, this is an urgent priority. Distilling these ideas into a few concise sentences can provide a roadmap and an important sense of certainty for you and your employees to help navigate today’s challenges.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.