Have you chosen your 2021 resolutions for becoming a better leader – defining ‘better leader’ however you prefer? I suspect not many people do this, so I urge you to set some leadership goals that are more novel and developmental than most new-year commitments. My suggestions concern, not common advice like finding a good mentor or seeking feedback, but the essential substance of excellent 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 stress or health or personal productivity, set leader-growth goals, including reading one or more sources 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 far more than making sure work gets done. Over time, it’s fundamentally about the processes used to work well with other people – the ‘human element’ in leadership. In choosing your personal goals, it is essential to consider their effects on others as well as on the 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. Consider Humans are Underrated by Geoffrey Colvin, or search for articles about the career advantages of developing soft skills.
The figure below (from a previous Psychology Today article) summarises a useful perspective on the human element. You can use it as a strategic foundation for thinking about how to work with other people, manage yourself, and merge those two topics into one: leading effectively.
3. Most managers have preferred styles of decision-making. For instance, to decide autocratically by being the boss or 50 discuss options with others with more participative approaches. It’s best to use a broad repertoire of decision styles: autocratic when there’s no time or no advantage to consulting others, and discussion-based when you need additional information and viewpoints and need people to become fully committed to implementing the decisions well.
Of course, the choice isn’t that stark or straightforward, but the point is to be able to apply different approaches as appropriate. If you prefer democracy, also be decisive when necessary. 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. To address 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 a good decision-maker? Effective decision-making is far different from being decisive, which is useful when something is urgent or simply when it’s time to act. Being a good decision-maker – take a look at Let’s Buy Greenland! – means being thorough and unbiased, especially for decisions important to both performance and people.
5. Again speaking of decisions, achieving good results by delegating responsibilities is a universal struggle. If you want to learn to do it better, you’ll find useful guidelines by merely 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 become more highly aspirational. For instance, commit to earning an outstanding reputation for deep thinking and practical wisdom.
7. Many people wish they had more charisma, but figure they weren’t born with that fictitious special gene. The good news is, the things – that is, observable behaviours – that contribute to perceived charisma are not magical or fixed by genetics; they are readily learnable and actionable. So, become more charismatic with recommendations in sources such as The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane.
8. If you wish you were more extraverted and comfortable in leadership roles, view introversion as a flexible ‘free trait’ that doesn’t need to hold you back or hinder your effectiveness and see recent books for leaders about your strengths and best tactics.”
9. Most people try to be ethical. A higher 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, results-focused, thoughtful, action-based, and concerned with the long term. See my Psychology Today article with the motive pyramid in the figure above to learn more about proactivity as the cornerstone of human agency.
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 of such adaptive leadership will come and will outweigh the tactical errors.
12. Strive for deeper understanding. Leadership, like most arenas, has a lot of buzzwords. You’ve just read a few, for instance, delegation, participative leadership, and being proactive. 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 well and forever after. Being proactive, for example, means far more than not procrastinating (re-read above). “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 – in fact, 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 ability 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 2021.
Thomas Bateman is a professor emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.