It’s that time of year when we set new year resolutions. Except this year is different. We have the benefit of 2020 hindsight and everything we learned from the challenges of last year. As we enter 2021 in this decade of continued disruption (climate change, digital transformation and advances in artificial intelligence changing the future of work), it will serve all of us well to focus on leadership practices, not resolutions. Over time these leadership practices become etched into habits and character that help us to be more agile and resilient. I personally used these leadership practices in 2020 to help me grow my business +30%, write and publish my award-winning book, start a successful leadership podcast and (importantly for a year where many of us are burned out) experience well-being and inspiration.
Individually and collectively, we experienced a year unlike any other in our lifetimes. There are many leadership lessons to be internalized. My executive coaching clients are using these ten questions to reflect on 2020. In these reflections, leaders are discovering new capacities they developed confronting the crucible experiences of 2020. Think back for yourself: you have been agile to change, learned how to make decisions in unpredictable situations, been resilient, done things differently. Collectively, in record time, the human race now has a number of COVID-19 vaccines that are offering hope and optimism for 2021.
What we have learned in 2020 is that there is less within our control than we would like. Often, we lose focus and momentum on our goals when we don’t make the quick progress that we anticipated. Most new year resolutions are abandoned within the first quarter of the year, many in the first month. Instead of setting outcome focused goals (i.e. I will lose 20 lbs, I will save more money, I will get promoted in my job, etc), consider leadership practices that will help you be more effective, inspired and agile in times of disruption. Based on my book “Wired for Disruption”, here are six research-based leadership practices to try. Once you have gained momentum in these you can add your own.
Six Leadership Practices for 2021
I asked myself a question for each leadership practice every day. This is a technique I learned from Marshall Goldsmith, the leading CEO executive coach and mentor to me. It is a way to be accountable to yourself every day for doing your best in areas that are important to you and critical for success in your goals. The key for this tool to work is to get an accountability partner. Marshall Goldsmith pays someone to call him every day and ask him to self-assess on his list of 30 questions. Every day my accountability partner and I rate ourselves on each of our questions on a scale of one to ten. I keep mine in an excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet shows that I have been more consistent in my practice once I got an accountability partner.
These six practices below are research-based to help us lead in times of disruption.
1. Did I do my best to take care of my health and well-being? Most of us have experienced burnout this past year due to the stress of the disruptions we have faced. Our leadership impact is driven by our state of well-being. In my book “Wired for Disruption” I shared research from Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a leading neuroscientist, that shows that our ability to be agile, creative and responsive to change is related to our ability to shift to our parasympathetic (rest and relax) nervous system. This impacts not just us but also the people we lead and influence. You can listen to our podcast episode here. Most performance experts suggest that we need to move our bodies, eat nutritious food, get quality sleep and practice mindfulness to take care of ourselves.
2. Did I do my best to appreciate the good in myself and others? Based on neuroscience and other research, teams that create trust and psychological safety are nine times more agile. Our ability to appreciate the efforts of others and establish empathetic connection (especially when we are working virtually) is critical to both our performance and well-being on teams. Giving grace to ourselves in challenging times and practicing self-compassion actually helps us be more resilient according to leading researcher Dr. Kristin Neff.
3. Did I do my best to find moments of meaning and purpose in my day? What enabled me to be focused and productive during the pandemic was finding what is meaningful. Research shared in my book shows that disruptions lower our performance until we integrate, accept and actually find meaning in the disruption. Kevin Delaney, VP Learning & Development at LinkedIn writes in his book “A Life Worth Living” that our life does not have one purpose, but many. It is up to us to stay present to the opportunities to engage with what is meaningful for us as they unfold in front of us. Early in the pandemic, I thought about how I could serve the leadership community by bringing together the latest neuroscience-backed research about human agility and resilience. This birthed my book and podcast.
4. Did I do my best to write and progress my top three priorities? Research shows that writing our goals matters. Spending time to reflect every morning on top priorities for the day helps you stay focused. In my podcast interview with CEO of Humana (a Fortune 50 company) Bruce Broussard, he shared his morning practice of waking up at 4:30am, exercising and reflecting on the day ahead.
5. Did I do my best to practice curiosity? In my podcast interview with Simon Brown, Chief Learning Officer of Novartis (and author of “The Curious Advantage”), we discussed the importance of learning agility. As the half-life of skills rapidly declines, Simon’s message to leaders is that we must learn to be curious. It will serve us to get into the habit of learning, unlearning, and relearning. In particular, in times of disruption, we have to get out of our habitual patterns of thinking and examine our own biases. Given that we are often facing novel challenges, we have to get into the habit of inviting different perspectives and doing small experiments to learn rather than assume we know the answers in unpredictable situations.
6. Did I do my best to practice (insert leadership or character value here)? Each of us has one or more values that we deeply admire in others and want to embody in ourselves. Perhaps it is courage, honesty, resilience, dreaming big, compassion or service to others. Whatever that is for you, when you practice it, it helps you be more confident in yourself, more resilient and better able to make decisions in the gray zones. This is a way to be more anchored when there is noise or turmoil around us. Jim Loehr, author of “Leading with Character” and co-founder of the J&J Human Performance Institute shared in our podcast interview how staying true to our values helps create within us the discretionary energy to weather challenging times.
The purpose of asking ourselves “did I do my best” for each of these questions is to give ourselves some grace. We are human beings, not machines. This year has shown us that in times of stress and turmoil we are thrown off course. Giving ourselves grace allows us to come back to our practice and not give up in the face of temporary setbacks. Over time these practices become habits that help us each be more agile, inspired leaders transforming ourselves to be agents of positive change within our workplaces and ecosystem. Wishing you good practice in 2021!
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.