New Year’s Resolutions have become something of a cliché in our culture, even the butt of jokes. Why? Because our collective failure to keep those resolutions—to lose weight, to save money, to call Mom every week—has rendered them semi-ridiculous, the stuff of late-night comedy and Sunday morning funny pages.
But that doesn’t mean reviewing our past performance in various areas of our lives and resolving to do better in the future isn’t a worthwhile activity. And although we can engage in such self-assessment at any time and should probably be doing it on a regular basis, the beginning of a new calendar year provides an excellent psychological impetus to plot a revised course.
In that spirit, then, and in keeping with one of our main themes in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders—that to become a better leader, you must first become a better person—I’d like to offer this short list of practical, imminently do-able behaviors that leaders should consider adopting in 2022.
Even if you’re already doing all of these, to some extent, I suspect you (like me) could probably do better. And the best part is that, if you can measurably improve yourself in these five simple areas, you might be surprised at how much of a positive difference it will make in your attitude, your relationships, and ultimately your leadership.
Yes, I know—you’d love to read more, if only you had the time. All that means is reading isn’t a priority for you, so I’m suggesting that, in 2022, you make it a priority. At the very least, schedule some time each day just to read something that no one is making you read, something that you’ve chosen.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of time—20 to 30 minutes a day would be an excellent start. And I strongly suspect you could free up an extra 20 or 30 minutes just by limiting your time looking at social media or watching Netflix. A lot of people read just before going to bed. Others get up a little earlier to have some quiet time. Find what works for you—but do find some time in your day to read.
What you read is up to you, but it doesn’t have to be just books about business or leadership. Enjoy some good fiction or popular non-fiction. Read up on historical time periods that interest you. Find out what your teenagers are reading and follow along, so you can see what they’re being exposed to. All of this will help make you a more thoughtful, intellectually well-rounded person, and that will have profound implications for your leadership.
At the same time, reading alone isn’t sufficient to bring about the kind of behavioral changes that will ultimately make you a better person and a better leader. The other half of the equation involves reflection, taking time to actually ponder, or think deeply about what you’ve read.
The incomparable value of great literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, is that it teaches us more about what it means to be human. For those lessons to be internalized, however, we must spend time thinking about them—considering them in context and asking how they might apply to our current-day situation and ultimately, to ourselves.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, although very different works, have provided wonderfully enjoyable reading experiences for millions. The salient question, though, is what can you take away from your encounter with these literary powerhouses? What can Tolkien and Gladwell teach you about yourself? About others? About leadership?
So here’s a practical suggestion: Begin in January going to bed 30 minutes earlier so you can get up 30 minutes earlier and spend that time savoring a good book. Then, in the car on your way to work, turn off the radio and just think about what you read. You might be pleasantly surprised at some of the revelations that come to you.
No More White Lies
This is a hard one, but no less important for that. All of us, even if we’re basically honest in the areas that matter most (or so we think), have a tendency to tell “white lies”—seemingly minor untruths or half-truths, usually designed to save us embarrassment or make us look better to others. We say we were stuck in traffic when we’re late for a meeting, or claim we never received that important e-mail we failed to read—even though it isn’t true.
The problem is that lying, even in relatively minor ways, becomes habitual. And over time, white lies like these become like little leprous spots on our souls, slowly eating away at both our self-regard and our reputation. We tend to think that white lies don’t really hurt anyone, but that’s not true. They hurt us, even if no one else.
The good news is that truth-telling can become habitual, as well, if we commit to it regardless of the consequences to ourselves. And remember that there are two ways to avoid most of those white lies: You can admit that you were late because you overslept, or you can simply be on time to begin with.
It’s true that some people just seem to be more empathetic than others. But does that mean if you’re not “naturally” empathic, then you can’t learn to consider and take into account other people’s feelings?
Of course not. That’s another one of our main themes in The 9 Virtues: that you can improve yourself in all areas of your life. It is within your power to do so. Virtue can be defined as a set of behaviors that become habits, and thus virtue is ultimately an act of will. Telling the truth, even when it hurts, requires an act of will, and so does resolving to see and understand other people’s perspectives when they differ from your own.
The key is first of all to recognize that there are other perspectives, many of them quite valid—perhaps just as valid as your own, if not more so. This requires humility, which we would argue is the foundational virtue. At the same time, disciplining yourself to take other points of view into account is an excellent way of developing and internalizing the virtue of Humility.
So, the next time you’re in a situation where you find that others disagree with you or disapprove of your actions, instead of getting angry or frustrated, make a conscious effort to understand why they feel the way they do. When you’re having a difficult time understanding why an employee is behaving in a certain way, try putting yourself in that person’s shoes. That doesn’t mean you’ll come to agree with them or excuse their behavior—but it will be huge step toward communicating with them in a way that could well prove beneficial to you both.
Do a Good Turn Daily
Last of all—speaking as someone who has raised three Eagle Scouts—I’d like to recommend that you take a page from the Boy Scout handbook and look for an opportunity to perform an act of service for someone else every single day.
That person could be an absolute stranger. At a fast-food restaurant recently, I noticed a woman who was obviously homeless, sitting in a corner nursing a cup of coffee. I was just beginning to wonder what I could do to help her when the lady in line in front of me added a $5.00 gift card to her order and then dropped it off, without a word, at the woman’s table.
While such gestures are heart-warming, however, especially during the holiday season, we shouldn’t overlook the people we’re around all the time—those we work with, friends and acquaintances, even our own families. The act of service itself doesn’t have to be grand; it could be something as simple as doing the dishes because you notice your spouse seems tired. Nor does the act even need to be acknowledged. There are lots of things we can do for people that they never even know about.
As you resolve to look every day for opportunities to serve people, the first thing that will happen is that those opportunities will present themselves. The truth is, they were there all the time—we just weren’t necessarily looking for them. And the second thing that will happen is that we will become kinder, more empathic versions of ourselves, embodying the virtues of both Humility and Charity.
This New Year, along with resolutions that will mostly benefit yourself (like weight loss), try making some of these resolutions that will also benefit others—especially those you lead. As you do, you will notice a marked improvement in your self-regard, your ability to relate to and communicate with others, and your ability to inspire those you lead. You’ll be a better leader, precisely because you’ve become a better person.
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways and no message could’ve been any clearer. If they wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.” These Michael Jackson lyrics may be familiar to some. For me, this chorus comes to mind when I’m conducting professional development sessions.
I firmly believe growth happens at the edge of introspection and self-development. I see the value in taking time to objectively learn more about ourselves, specifically “how” and “why” we do what we do. Research has shown the most effective leaders are those who understand themselves, their strengths and vulnerabilities.
Paul Sean Hill, a former flight director and director of mission operations for human spaceflight at NASA, shared that successful leaders may get comfortable with their own reputation. There is the tendency to focus on past personal or professional triumphs or thinking a team’s success is a result of their leadership alone. Continuing down this path may cause leaders to make poorly thought-out decisions, lose the ability to take risks, or become numb to the realities around them. Sometimes, a failure can snap leaders out of these patterns, but even that requires a leader to be honestly introspective and own up to their mistakes.
I am passionate about helping leaders unlock their leadership potential by performing optimally and finding ways to elevate others along the way. I am excited to say we strive to do just that at the Academy for Advancing Leadership through consultant services and professional development. Time and time again, I encounter leaders who view the assessment process as a waste of time or get fixated on one nuance or another. My approach is to encourage leaders to widen their lenses to avoid taking the bait and missing the cues. As tempting as it may be to spend time defending one’s actions, it is important to remember an assessment provides an accurate representation of a person by highlighting perspectives and differences.
There are no right or wrong answers. There is no good or bad behavioral style. Each leader is unique and has a valuable role within an institution or organization. Good assessments create a robust story of who the leader is, how they are likely to act in a given situation, what motivates them to do what they do, and which ways they demonstrate their acumen. With knowledge from the assessment, leaders may better understand their behaviors related to problem solving, influencing others, emotional intelligence, and otherwise engaging in today’s environments.
More than ever, leaders want and need to get it right. We all know the stakes are so high. The way things were once done will no longer work. Change is what we face. We must be open to continuous introspection to lead effectively.
“How do you lead up in an organization?” Or the derivative, “How can I lead without having any power?” Those questions are being asked with increasing frequency, and I’ve been asking the same questions myself lately. After thoughtful consideration, the questions may be difficult, but perhaps the answers need not be.
A decade ago, I attended a speech on a university campus in the Midwest. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to an audience of roughly 200 citizens encouraging them to get out and vote. I’ll paraphrase his message:
“People often tell me they have no power at work. But that’s not true. They may not have formal authority of position, but they have power. They have the power of their beliefs, their convictions, and their values. They have the power of those people with whom they surround themselves. Indeed, we all have power. Now, we need to harness it.”
These sentiments are even more true today than ever before. We ask these questions, because we are working in outdated organizations. The old top-down traditional hierarchy no longer adequately helps our organizations meet their aims, nor does it fit the needs of our professional employees. Those who sit on top of traditional rigid pyramids are being usurped by new nimble, agile, and responsive organizations which have learned to harness the talents of their professionals.
These new organizations are mission and value driven. They need leaders of different types spread throughout the system. Michael Useem, author of Leading Up, wrote of the old and new models: “Old work rule: Leadership is something bestowed upon you by the company or organization. It comes with the authority associated with your job title. New work rule: Leadership is everyone’s responsibility. You must help lead your team, regardless of your job title or level of authority.” Keith Ferrazzi, author of Leading Without Authority, wrote,“Command and control from on high are giving way to insight and initiative down under.”
The classic hierarchical model seems to be all that we know; it seems to be all that we were taught and all that we experienced. It’s our mimetic isomorphism—our only view of what is and what could be. The model, however, is flawed in its conception and philosophy. A fundamental presupposition is that the person higher up the pyramid knows more than those below. This is a profound misunderstanding and misapplication in a professional organization.
Frederick Taylor made a science of worker efficiency during the Industrial Age. He designed a model for factories and automatons. Max Weber, fearful of too much power in the hands of a singular boss, envisioned a bureaucratic model whereby decision making would be diffused across the organization’s highly trained and objective professional workforce. Unfortunately, the model has become too rigid in structure, out of touch with the locus of the decision impact, and not responsively nimble.
So, the model in entrenched; it’s all we know; it’s not going away. What are we to do? How can we empower the bright professional workforce we employ? How can the intelligent and creative professionals lead up without formal authority?
We’ve got challenges from above. We’re expecting the leaders at the top of the hierarchy to change. However, they have played by the rules to get to the top, and they were successful. Now, we want to change the rules on them. This is a tough ask. Maybe we need to challenge ourselves, first. Maybe we need to start by asking ourselves, “Has anyone led up to me? What did it look like? What culture have I established to allow and encourage my staff to lead up to me? And who are these new professionals in today’s organizations?”
Michael Maccoby, author of The Leaders We Need, explained leaders need to understand today’s professional workforce. This Interactive professional expects connection with others, yet a desire for autonomy. They want to work on self-sufficient teams and to be listened to. They look askance at people who wield their authority, and they often have more specific knowledge than their supervisors. Today’s professionals work best not in hierarchies, but rather in collaborative heterarchies.
So, how can we model opportunities for our own staff to lead up to us? We need to establish a culture of trust and collaboration. We need to support risk-taking dialogue and encourage opportunities for different members to take leadership roles on varied projects. It will require that we listen first to understand and then to be understood. It will require that we are humble, honest, and forthright. While all of our work will be mission-driven, process in how we get there will be critical. In all, we need to treat one another with dignity and respect.
These same behaviors will go a long way in helping us to lead up to our own bosses. We need to actively listen to them and to serve them with a focus on the organization’s mission. We need to understand the demands placed upon them and to respect their authority. Our leaders rely on our expertise and knowledge to serve them with wise counsel. This requires that we move from a transactional to a transformational relationship, and one with “a bias for action.”
We need to critically examine our own motives and actions. We need, most of all, to be good role models to serve as exemplars of the leadership we expect. At times we will need to know when to back down and other times when to speak up. We must be forthright, communicate often, not withhold information, and be persistent. In every interaction, we need to remain humble and to treat our leaders with dignity and respect. A good place to start is with practicing The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders as described by Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins.
A final personal anecdote to conclude. Thirty years ago, I was a young public school principal. I had the authority to tell my teachers to hand their next week’s lesson plans in to me on Friday afternoon before they left for the weekend. They would do that. Their lessons would tell me precisely what they would be doing each hour the following week. Yet, when they closed their classroom doors on Monday morning, they would teach what and how they wanted. Did I really know what they were doing? Was I really expressing power?
On the other hand, over the weeks and months, I could sit down with my colleague teachers to discuss what we knew about how our students learned and how we believed best to teach them. This was a professional heterarchy—I empowered them by giving away my power. Then, when they turned in their lesson plans on Friday afternoon, I could be much more confident I knew what they were doing when they closed their doors on Monday morning.
We don’t need authority to lead up; we need to leverage our power—the power of our beliefs, our expertise, and our values as collaborative team members.
Perry R. Rettig, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs at Piedmont College in Demorest and Athens, Georgia.
AAL Senior Consultant J. Ross Peters offers his perspective on learning and character in light of this time of transformation. When this is all said and done, who will we be as people? What do our futures look like? To hold himself accountable, Peters creates a plan for the kind of person he will strive to be during this crisis, steering away from the temptation of being overly reactive. For inspiration, he encourages readers to look at the sorts of models we envision our students becoming, as these figures are needed now more than ever.
In this extraordinary, “post-truth” time, we should all do our best to fulfill the role of a knowledgeable and responsible citizen. As a follow-up to his previous piece titled Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of the Coronavirus, AAL Senior Consultant J. Ross Peters challenges himself to commit to a series of “knowledgeable citizen compass” points in order to shape the kind of person he feels he ought to be. The key is to focus on what we can control – not dispensing energy on what we cannot. He also adds an important note for any readers who are parents and/or educators that considers the development of younger generations. Read the full article here >>
By: Prof. Rob Jenkins, AAL Senior Consultant, co-author of The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders and Professor at Georgia State University
Leadership is never more important than in times of crisis, whether minor on not-so-minor. When things go south, people have a natural tendency to become agitated, even panic. They also begin to question the decision-making of those above them on the org chart and the direction of the organization itself.
None of those reactions is conducive to the kind of efficiency and unity—the “pull together” mentality—needed to get through a crisis, especially a major one.
That’s why it’s vitally important, in the face of a crisis, for leaders to do two things: 1) remain calm and 2) have a viable plan to address the situation.
For a leader, the importance of calmness under fire is impossible to overstate. We can certainly see this illustrated in extreme circumstances, like combat. In the chaos of the battlefield, when many are just a heartbeat or two away from abject panic, the leader who can somehow remain calm is the one who can rally the troops.
The truth is, most people don’t like to panic; they’re looking for any reason not to. Someone in a very visible position who clearly is not panicking offers them an anchor to which they can attach themselves and thereby not be swept away on the currents of fear and anxiety.
We can see the same dynamic at work in sports. Next time your favorite pro or college basketball team is down by ten points, and the coach calls a time-out, try paying attention to what goes on in the huddle. Chances are, you’ll see the coach talking to the players very calmly. Sometimes there will be histrionics, but usually, those are reserved for when the team is ahead but players aren’t giving their best effort. When the tide of the game seems to turn against them, that’s when great coaches are able to head off panic by displaying calm.
The ability to remain calm in a crisis may be inborn, to some extent, but mostly it’s a quality developed intentionally through strict discipline and practice, and then forged in the furnace of impending chaos. It requires a great deal of courage because chances are good that the leader, underneath his or her outwardly calm exterior, is feeling all the same negative emotions as anyone else. Remember how we define “courage” in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: It’s not the absence of fear but rather the willingness and ability to do what needs to be done in spite of that fear.
Facing a crisis with calm also requires a great deal of confidence—in yourself, the people you lead, and the organization. Indeed, that sort of quiet confidence, even more than the unruffled physical appearance, is what resonates with people. When bad things are happening all around them, what they really want to know, more than anything else, is that ultimately it’s all going to be okay. It’s vital for leaders to project that belief, even if they’re not quite sure themselves.
Here’s the bottom line: If you as a leader panic, everyone else is going to panic, too. That’s when things can really fall apart. Therefore it’s absolutely vital for you to remain calm, whatever the cost.
The other key for leaders in a crisis is to have a plan. Simply remaining calm will have an immediate, positive effect on the people around you, but that won’t last unless they come to believe, at some point, that you actually have a strategy, or a set of strategies, for moving the organization beyond the crisis. Otherwise, they’ll quickly come to see your outward calm for what it is—merely a façade, not based on anything substantive. Then panic will really set in.
Initially, at least, your plan doesn’t necessarily have to be fully fleshed-out and approved by all the appropriate committees. That can come later. At the moment of crisis, or shortly thereafter, you just need to have some ideas for addressing the situation, ideas that strike people as sensible, practical, and fair.
Those ideas don’t even necessarily have to be your own. You might not have time to seek approval from six committees, but unless you’re in the middle of a firefight or there are two minutes left to go in the game, you probably do have time to seek advice and input from trusted mentors, other professionals (perhaps in the form of books and articles), and even those around you.
In fact, one very effective way of dealing with a crisis is to bring everyone affected to the table for a brainstorming session. You have to be careful with this, lest it appears that you’re completely out of ideas. The people you lead probably don’t want to be the ones steering the ship—but they will have no problem helping to man the oars, and perhaps even suggesting a course correction or two.
So you might want to start a meeting like this by tossing out a few ideas of your own for discussion, then asking for input and suggestions from the other people around the table. Chances are, they will see things that you don’t see, and the combined brainpower of the group will be able to make significant progress in charting a course out of the current trouble.
But that will happen ONLY if they believe such a course is possible. That’s where your quiet confidence as a leader comes in. You may not have all the answers—and there’s no shame in acknowledging that—but you do have SOME ideas, at least, and you’re open to other ideas as well. But the most important thing is that you believe in the people around the table, you believe in the organization, and you believe in yourself. You’re convinced that a solution is indeed possible, and that attitude will be evident to the others in the meeting, who will likely follow your lead.
So just to recap, briefly: In a crisis, as a leader, you have to remain calm. If you panic, everyone will panic, and the situation will disintegrate even further. But mere outward calm is not enough. You also have to have a plan to address the crisis, even if that plan is just getting everyone together to come up with a plan.
If you’ll do just those two things—be calm and have a plan—when the you-know-what hits the fan, chances are very good that your organization—and your career—will not only survive but ultimately thrive.
Relation-Based Leadership for the 21st Century
by Evelyn Booth & Jonathan Silk
How do we lead in a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous? Scholars Evelyn Booth and Jonathan Silk suggest that incorporating people-first, relationship-focused priorities into your leadership will help you navigate this challenging world. In turn, you end up with an organization where teams can thrive.
Our Dangerous Obsession with Perfectionism is Getting Worse
by Thomas Curran
The pursuit of perfection can be tempting for leaders, but it may be more detrimental than beneficial. Thomas Curran, a social psychologist, reviews how pressures to be perfect are causing us harm. For educators, his words offer insight on how to interact with students.
Are You Working on You? Questions for Improving the Quality of Your Leadership
by John R. Stoker
This piece from John R. Stoker, author and leadership expert, encourages self-reflection as we assess our awareness of our own leadership. He walks us through 10 questions to ask ourselves to help clarify our relationship with work.
Does Absentmindedness Affect Life Balance?
by Dr. N. Karl Haden
Founder and President of AAL, Dr. N. Karl Haden, shares his perspective on one of his favorite topics in leadership: life balance. Using the philosopher Sōren Kierkegaard’s words as context, he discusses the relationship between life balance (or lack thereof) and absentmindedness. How can we alleviate the ailment of absentmindness and regain control of time in our personal and professional lives?
Five Common Communication Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)
by Matt Abrahams
Instead of trudging through an unengaging and therefore ineffective presentation, try upgrading your communication skills to make them better. Stanford lecturer Matt Abrahams shares five common errors you may engage in while presenting and how you can correct them. In turn, you can expect increased efficiency and productivity in your meetings.
Life Hacks from Marcus Aurelius: How Stoicism Can Help Us
What do you know about Stoicism? Have you ever applied its practices to your professional life? Author Marcus Aurelius is interviewed on his new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and walks us through how Stoicism can be applied in business settings. “If we want to suffer less, we need to learn to embrace our pain and live with it without struggling against it as much,” he says.
Create a Workplace Where Everyone Feels Comfortable Speaking Up
by Khalil Smith, Chris Weller, & David Rock
In an organizational psychology study at a hospital, one researcher found that those perceived to have higher status are more likely to speak their mind in critical, life-or-death situations. NeuroLeadership Institute members Khalil Smith, Chris Weller, and David Rock review why creating an environment that fosters speaking up is important and provide tips on how to do so.
Nine Bad Habits You Must Break to be More Productive
by Dr. Travis Bradberry
Are you aware of your bad habits and how they are impacting your work productivity? Dr. Travis Bradberry, author and expert in emotional intelligence, lists nine of the worst offenders so you can more easily identify them and reduce their occurrence – in and out of the workplace.