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 our 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 2017.
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.
Read more. 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 2017, 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 television. A lot of people read just before going to bed. Others get up a little earlier in order 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.
Reflect more. 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.
Practice empathy. 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.
So 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.
In a recent leadership development session with a group of executives from a large Midwestern corporation, we got to talking about optimism. I was covering the chapter in The 9 Virtues on “Hope,” of which optimism (we contend) is one aspect, and the discussion was about the difference—or rather the fine line—between being optimistic and wearing rose-colored glasses. We also debated the opposite of optimism: Is it pessimism, or is it actually cynicism?
In this post, then, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about optimism as a function of leadership, taken both from the book and from that discussion.
My first thought is that optimism can’t be faked, or at least not for very long. It’s more than just acting upbeat, saying appropriately positive things, or wearing a smile plastered to your face. Genuine optimists have a consistent way of speaking and of approaching challenges that resonates with people because it arises from deep within them. They truly believe things are going to turn out for the best and see opportunities where other people see difficulties.
Such genuine optimism can be a powerful tool for leaders—as long as it is tied to reality. Few things are as motivating as a belief that everything really is going to work out for the best. But if that belief proves to be false too many times, perhaps because the situation really was direr than anyone let on, then people will, over time, become jaded and cynical. So the optimistic leader has to be a realist, too, or else people will just stop believing—and stop being motivated.
In this sense, optimism is closely related to what my high school basketball coach used to call “quiet confidence.” Because we had a pretty good team—big, fast, and skilled—it would have been easy for us to think we were going to win for those reasons alone. But our coach preached to us constantly that the difference between confidence and “cockiness” is that the cocky team believes it’s going to win just by showing up (and too often gets beat as a result), whereas the quietly confident team believe that, if they play their hardest and execute the way they’ve been coached, they will win the game.
Another term for this, as it applies to leadership, might be pragmatism. We sometimes see optimism and pessimism as two ends of the spectrum with pragmatism somewhere in the middle. But that’s not really what pragmatism is. It’s actually a form of optimism—but optimism tempered by Wisdom. (As a side note here, we were frequently amazed, as we wrote the book, at how interrelated all the nine virtues are. It was impossible to write about one virtue without several others cropping up.)
In other words, pragmatists are actually optimists rooted in reality. They have the kind of quiet confidence that’s infectious, believing deeply that if they and the people around them work hard and do the right things, then in the long run the organization and all of them individually will prosper. At the same time, pragmatists don't ignore the reality of the situation on the ground and the challenges it presents. They just believe that, with the right approach and a little teamwork, those challenges can usually be overcome.
When optimism is divorced from reality, it can quickly become pie-in-the-sky fantasy. That is NOT motivating. In fact, people will not long follow a leader who refuses to acknowledge reality or deal with its challenges. I once worked for a CEO who had a reputation as a visionary, and she was—at first. Indeed, many of us in the organization were inspired by her vision, and together we took the organization to new heights. Over time, though, as successes piled up and (more to the point) that leader began to believe her own press, she concluded that she could not possibly do any wrong, and that if she could dream it, she could achieve it.
That turned out not to be the case. As her dreams for the organization expanded, they eventually entered the realm of the unattainable—fantasy-land, to be blunt. Many of us saw where she was headed, the train-wreck around the corner, but she couldn’t be swayed from taking us down that track. Anyone who attempted to inject a dose of reality into the discussion was quickly labeled a “nay-sayer” or a cynic. And so of course the train-wreck occurred, in slow-motion, as we all watched. (This story also highlights the importance of Humility—a willingness to listen to others—as an element of vision. So rather than saying that pragmatism is optimism tempered by Wisdom, perhaps we should say it is optimism tempered by both Wisdom and Humility.)
Which brings me to another point: the role of the cynic. When the leader’s vision is not rooted in reality, over time nearly everyone becomes cynical, and understandably so. But even when things are going well, and the leader takes an appropriately pragmatic approach, there is going to be at least one cynic in every organization.
I’ve always believed that the cynic plays an important role. It’s the cynic—who may just be a pragmatist with poor people skills—that tends to keep us centered, to point out the flaws in our reasoning and warn us of the coming train wrecks. Of course, the problem with cynics is that they tend to see a wreck around every bend of the track, and the vast majority of those collisions never take place. It their own way, cynics are just as unrealistic as fantasy-mongers—except when they’re not.
That’s why a certain amount of cynicism should be encouraged in an organization. At the very least, people should feel free to speak out about potential problems they see with ideas, including the leader’s pet ideas, without being labeled as negative or “nay-sayers.” That sort of Honesty (another of the Virtues!), combined with Humility, can help keep leaders focused and rooted in reality.
We just can’t have too many cynics. One cynic can sound a much-needed warning bell; an entire organization of cynics would never set out to begin with for fear of coming catastrophes. Constant cynicism is ultimately no different from negativism. There might not be any way to keep a confirmed cynic from being cynical, and that’s fine; but the way to keep the rest of the people in the organization from becoming closet cynics is to lead with just the right degree of pragmatic optimism.
Moreover, even if it’s good to have a cynic or two around, leaders themselves cannot be that person. Imagine if the person charged with providing vision for the entire organization were to be constantly perceived as cynical and negative. How much confidence are people ultimately going to have in the organization? In that individual personally?
In the end, effective leaders need to cultivate and model a reality-based optimism that acknowledges challenges and problems—I hate it when people refer to every problem as a “challenge”; sometimes they’re genuine problems, darn it—without allowing people to be defeated by those challenges and problems before they’ve even begun. Leaders can have a “can-do” spirit while still understanding that, in reality, there are probably some things the organization actually can’t do.
The best leaders, though, know what people are truly capable of—and know that, very often, they’re capable of a lot more than they think. Getting them to see that, and to perform accordingly, is the true genius of leadership. And it all stems from a healthy optimism.