Skip to main content

What if you were to make being a better leader your New Year’s resolution?

Even if your performance evaluations are stellar, you can always improve in the important but highly complicated art of managing, with benefits for yourself and subordinates. As with anything, it requires deliberate practice, although that is difficult to weave into the roller coaster of the day and not easy to do alone.

To be effective, you need to give some thought to triggers. First, what precipitates your worst managerial moments? Is it, for example, tiredness, arrogant comments by others, or certain colleagues you have lost patience with? Now you can be on guard. A second aspect of triggers to consider are reminders you might give yourself to be your best throughout the day – to keep practising the new skills you want to adopt. Wearing an elastic around your hand might be a helpful nudge. If you want to listen better in meetings, would a computer prompt five minutes before each meeting help?

Accountability is another key element of change. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has paid someone to call him every night with a series of questions designed to evaluate his performance that day. A similar daily review can, of course, be accomplished by assigning time in the calendar for personal reflection or using a tracking app. With his clients, Mr Goldsmith advises their colleagues of the intended change, asks for forbearance and assistance, and even suggests those colleagues pick something to improve themselves so everyone is focused more on improving than judging. Involving others may seem intimidating, but is worth considering.

A prime issue will be whether to improve your strengths or address your weaknesses. Increasingly, leadership development is recognizing the power of enhancing strengths. But some weaknesses are crippling. You won’t succeed unless they are diminished or eliminated. And some weaknesses deeply aggravate your colleagues; you owe it to them to tackle the irritant.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Mr. Goldsmith catalogued 20 destructive habits, many stemming from the failing that heads his list: Wanting to win too much. The need to triumph in every situation squelches colleagues and while that determination can help us outpace others early in our career eventually it backfires. Other bad habits include an overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion, speaking when angry, clinging to the past, and playing favourites. Some of those may be predominantly male failings – they reflect traditional norms of masculinity -- and although some female executives adopt similar behaviours to succeed, there may be more traditionally feminine failings for you to be alert to like lack of assertiveness and being too consensus-conscious.

Digging deep to understand your mindset – the source of behaviours – can also be helpful. First, do you subscribe to Theory X or Theory Y as presented by Douglas McGregor in his classic, The Human Side of Enterprise? Do you believe, in accordance with Theory X, that the average employee is indolent, not terribly bright, lacking ambition, resistant to change, and inclined to work as little as possible? Or do you believe, in line with Theory Y, that people are not by nature passive and resistant to organizational needs but have become so as a result of experience in organizations? The actions you want to change may reflect your leanings.

Another significant mental divide was raised in McGill Professor Henry Mintzberg’s 2009 book Managing, where in a graphic he had managers at the centre, their work emanating out toward people in their unit, in the rest of the organization, and outside the organization. That contrasts with the normal view of managers as somewhere on a ladder or hierarchy. Again, this speaks to how you act, and where you need to improve.

A recent list of the seven worst leadership styles on The Ladders suggested hands-off, absent (completely detached from what’s going on), self-serving, inflexible, closed-minded, micromanagement, and authoritarian. If you flinched when reading any of those styles it may be what your 2021 resolution should address. Flip to positives, what you might seek to emulate, and the list might resemble this recent one from consultant Robert Glazer: Integrity, humility, empowering others, great communications, forward-thinking, empathy, competence, accountable, gratitude toward others, and self-awareness. If you scored yourself on each of those, which would be at the bottom? Which would your subordinates say are your best qualities and which your worst? Should you enhance strengths or shore up weaknesses?

Whatever you pick, your effort must be sustained, again returning to the issue of accountability. Every month or two you need to take stock and renew your commitment. And every day, you must strive for progress.

Consultant Wally Bock says the top-performing supervisors he studied all followed a practice of mental rehearsal during the day, asking what might arise in their next meeting and how to prepare for it. He also suggests developing scenarios and imagining how you would respond to them. And like musicians and athletes who carry out warm-up exercises before performance, you should be reviewing issues you will soon face and what you want to achieve in order to fulfill your New Year’s resolution.


  • Praise is the most powerful tool you have to keep people improving, so don’t dilute it warns consultant Wally Bock. Resist the temptation to add a small reminder to improve or a bit of humour. That can be done at another time.
  • Recent research suggests you can improve the diversity of your hirings without sacrificing quality by grouping them initially into different categories, such as university attended or gender or even randomly grouping them together with a paper clip. When the options are tossed together based on a given dimension, people tend to think, “Let’s choose some from each category,” and choose more diverse options.
  • Linda Rendle, CEO of Clorox, says before she tackles anything hard she asks what’s the worst thing that will happen if she does this and also what’s the worst that will happen if she doesn’t.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.