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What 2020 resolutions did you set for improving your leadership skills? Probably none, so I’m urging you here to set some developmental goals that are more novel than most new-year commitments. My suggestions here are less about learning processes (observe other leaders, seek mentors, get out of your comfort zone…) than about improving the essential substance of your leadership.
Here, among infinite possibilities, are some worthy aspirations you can consider and customise as you deem best:
1. Think of strengthening your leadership effectiveness as a (loving) task of self-management. While resolving to do a better job of managing your time or health or productivity, set leadership-growth goals, including reading one or more relevant articles or books and implementing the recommendations.
For starters, you could check out Self-management and Leadership Development, edited by Mitchell Rothstein and Ronald Burke. (I wrote a chapter for it titled ‘Personal Goals for Self-Directed Leaders’).
2. If you are a manager, top-down leadership is about more than making sure work gets done. It’s also about the processes used to work well with other people – the vital ‘human element’.
In choosing your goals, it is essential to consider their effects on others as well as on bottom lines, as you learn to deal with people successfully rather than indifferently or poorly. Resolve to work generally on interpersonal skills, and then get more specific.
3. Most managers have preferred styles of decision making – for instance, to either decide autocratically by being the boss or to discuss options with others in a more participative or democratic approach. Better is to use purposefully a broad repertoire of decision styles: autocratic when there’s no time or no advantage to consulting others, and participative when you need other viewpoints and need people to become fully committed to the actions chosen.
Of course, the choice of the most appropriate decision process isn’t that stark or straightforward, but the point is to be able to apply different approaches as needed. If you prefer democracy, learn to be decisive when most appropriate.
If you trend autocratic, learn how to be more participative. For the most significant, far-ranging, and consequential decisions, I recommend Collaborating for Our Future by Barbara Gray and Jill Purdy. And for the common circumstance of people being reluctant to offer honest opinions and suggestions, check out Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization.
4.Speaking of decisions, how about deciding to become an effective decision maker? Effective decision making is different from being decisive, which is useful when something is urgent or following discussion when it’s time to act and move on. Being a good decision maker means being thorough and unbiased, especially for decisions important to both performance and people.
5. Again speaking of decisions, delegating responsibly and decision authority is a universal struggle. If you want to learn to do it better, you’ll find useful guidelines merely by searching on ‘how to delegate’.
6. Still speaking of decisions – because nothing is more important to leadership than making good ones – you could strive to be more rational than irrational. Or you could be more highly aspirational. For instance, commit to earning an outstanding reputation for your critical thinking and practical wisdom.
7. Many people wish they had more charisma, but assume it’s a lost cause. Good news is, the behaviours that contribute to perceived charisma are not magical or fixed by genetics; in fact they are readily learnable and actionable. So, become more charismatic with recommendations from sources such as The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane.
8. If you wish you more extraverted and comfortable in leadership roles, consider introversion a flexible ‘free trait’ that doesn’t need to hold you back or hinder your effectiveness, and see recent books about your strengths and best tactics.
9. Most people try to be ethical. A more expansive goal is to become an ethical leader who talks openly about values and responsibility and builds a culture thereof. A good book of readings is Ethics, the Heart of Leadership by Joanne Ciulla.
10. If you are a manager and your goals are primarily maintenance goals that keep things operating and perhaps improving incrementally, that’s fine. But you also can decide to become a more proactive change leader. Much more than conscientious business as usual, proaction is forward-looking, thoughtful, action-based, and concerned with the long term.
Crucially, this recommendation pertains even if you are not a boss with authority over others; you can be a change leader from any level or corner of an organisation, by influencing others to do things better or do better things.
Check out Proactivity at Work: Making Things Happen in Organizations, edited by Sharon. Parker and Uta Bindl. My chapter – and the book includes many other topics – is about setting and pursuing proactive goals.
11. Decide ahead of time to keep trying and refining new approaches. The first time you try to delegate, for instance, it might not work well. Instead of giving up, consider it an experiment, make a point of learning from it, check your actions against the recommendations you might or might not have followed, adjust your tactics, and keep trying. Over time, the payoffs will come and will outweigh the tactical errors.
12. Strive for deeper understanding. Leadership, like most domains, has a lot of buzzwords. You’ve just read a few: emotional intelligence, delegation, being proactive, and others. You’d heard them before. But that doesn’t mean you truly know what they are, in detail, and in all their nuance such that they will work every time forever after. ‘Lifelong learning’ might seem like a cliché, but that’s what the best leaders engage in.
Thomas Edison said: ‘If we did everything we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.’ We often hold ourselves back, and even self-sabotage, by continuing to do what we’ve always done, not learning, repeating the same mistakes, and failing to experiment, adapt, and grow.
But anyone can strengthen their leadership skills by deciding to do so and then working at it. As the great psychologist William James put it: ‘If you care enough about a result, you will almost certainly attain it.’
George Bernard Shaw taught us: We are made wise not from the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.’ If everyone resolved to embrace this wisdom in both belief and action, leaders really could change the world in 2020.
Image credit: Freepik
Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.