If you’re under 50, there probably hasn’t been, in your memory, a time of such paralyzing uncertainty. Sure, each decade since the 60s has seen its share of unpleasant news. The 60s saw JFK assassinated and the ramp-up of the Vietnam War. The 70s had Watergate, the fall of Nixon and the undignified scramble out of Vietnam. Jimmy Carter’s botched Iran hostage rescue marked the 80s, and the 90s saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 2000’s Y2K was followed in close order by the dot-com bust and 9/11. While each of these periods carried its own signature worry, we seemed, as a country, to emerge with renewed optimism.
That was then, and this is now, as they say. We’ve had years of unrelenting bad economic news and more than a decade of wars. Our upcoming presidential election holds the entire country, perhaps world, in thrall. The Cold War appears to be warming back up, and companies – and their leaders – are doubling down on caution in the face of global economic uncertainty.
In the blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman re-emerges after an eight-year respite, simply because his leadership is desperately needed by the seemingly-doomed people of Gotham. In a period of marked uncertainty, leadership is the key that opens the door to prosperity – and leaders don’t even need a utility belt.
While it is a leader’s job to manage for conservation of assets in times of uncertainty, it is also possible to lead by managing for growth. As leaders we must focus on expanding our capability to recognize and leverage both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation while accepting accountability for championing growth.
What does it mean to be a champion of growth? Here’s a short list of attributes I’ve observed in leaders who manage growth-oriented businesses – with my assessment of how those attributes contributed to a strong corporate culture, one tuned for growth and job creation.
Intrinsic motivation: great leaders are self-aware. They are driven by a personal commitment to excellence. They reward autonomy and collaboration in their organizations; their leadership style fosters a culture of accountability and rewards customer focus. These companies are built for growth. How can leaders grow this muscle? Stop being motivated by your benefits package and seek motivation in expanding your employees’ options and your customers’ satisfaction.
Focus: successful leaders are able to focus, and to shift focus when necessary to keep the organization moving forward. Focus requires emotional intelligence and the ability to understand how your actions will influence the actions of others. Leaders with excellent focus are also excellent motivators. If you lack focus, don’t despair; it can be learned with the help of a coach, a mentor, or a trusted advisor. (And there’s always Adderall.)
Empathy: some of the most successful companies of past years have been led by people with a reputation for a lack of empathy (e.g., Steve Jobs and Apple, Larry Ellison and Oracle.) While those companies have done great things, leading us out of a time of uncertainty isn’t on the list. Think about it: do you lack empathy? If so, it’s time to start considering the emotional consequences of your actions on others.
Socially adept: to be socially adept is to be able to listen, to communicate a vision, to accept feedback, to be open to change. Managers and executives who close themselves off from employees (or, worse, customers) risk losing competitive edge and market relevance. Social skills take practice. Listening takes patience and the willingness to put self aside. But the rewards are amazing. Practice active listening. Talk less and hear more. You may just hear the next big idea for your business.
Courage: I was actually going to write courage of your convictions here, but it’s really just simple courage. It’s so easy to pass on courageous behavior, but courage is the best weapon against uncertainty. Have courage. Be resolute and determined to succeed, and your employees will respond – as will customers. Sure, you’re staring down a gazillion new regulations and taxes. But have the courage to imagine hiring 50 workers, or 100. Have the courage to go first. People will notice.
It’s time to wage war – a war on uncertainty. If you’ve been a successful manager and steward of your company, you’re sitting on piles of cash. Put that cash to work, and put people to work. Be accountable, be self-aware, be empathetic, listen and have courage. Be a leader.
Others before us have done it. Now it’s our turn.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com on July 9, 2012.