The Uncomfortable Relationship Between Leadership and Goal-Setting

When it comes to their careers, lots of leaders have been treading water these past two years. Given the unprecedented upheaval we’ve experienced, that’s to be expected. After all, the data shows disturbingly high burnout levels, and many leaders and employees are just trying to hold on.

But we can’t use the pandemic as an excuse forever. It’s now time for us all to focus on kicking our careers into high gear, and that’s going to require goals so difficult that we’re going to feel a bit uncomfortable.  

Setting big and difficult goals is not something that comes naturally to most leaders, however. In the Leadership IQ study ”Are SMART Goals Dumb?,” we discovered that only 43% of leaders set difficult or audacious goals.

The kicker is that the people who set difficult goals are 34% more likely to love their jobs. And the people who have reached the executive suite of their companies are 64% more likely to set difficult or audacious goals. 

Hopefully, that gives you a bit of data-driven reassurance that setting difficult goals is both efficacious and ultimately satisfying.

The Problem With Safety

The question, though, is how to set a career goal for yourself that’s both sufficiently challenging and aligned with your desired career trajectory. While there are dozens of approaches you can take, the one that I’ve found most successful for leaders is to take a critical look at the decisions you made this past year. Specifically, look for situations where you opted to take a safe course of action rather than make a bigger, riskier, more difficult choice.  

Maybe you had a crazy idea that your company should mandate burnout-reduction training for every employee. Or that every leader should be held accountable for conducting stay interviews with their employees and that their performance should be treated as seriously as P&L results.  

But perhaps you worried that those proposals were too difficult or risky. Perhaps you felt that building the necessary support was too much to take on in 2021. Regardless of the specifics, most people, if they’re being brutally honest with themselves, can reflect on the past year and find at least a few times when they opted for the safer path. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with opting for the safer path — but again, leaders who pursue more difficult and audacious goals tend to be happier and enjoy greater career success. Plus, I’m guessing that you’ve got higher levels of ambition than those who are comfortable consistently choosing the safer approach.

So the next step is to assess why you took the less risky approach. Perhaps you conducted a robust psychological assessment of the readiness of the people around you and discovered they couldn’t handle the idea you wanted to propose. I have a hunch, however, that the truth is less about the readiness of others and more about your own fears. 

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I’ve worked with more than a few executives whose fears of rejection really mask deeper fears about looking stupid, or being embarrassed, or even that if they blow this one chance, they’ll literally never get another chance to pitch an idea. 

Some fear is healthy, but often fears of failure are more imagined than verifiably real. And regardless of their grounding in reality, we can probably all agree that these fears about looking foolish in a meeting are not literally life-and-death. 

What’s Your Next Step? 

It’s simple: Commit to taking an action in 2022 that you avoided (or would have avoided) taking in 2021.  

I should note that committing is more than just saying the words. Because of the generation effect, you need to write down the action you’re going to take. The generation effect says that people remember material they’ve generated themselves far more than material they’ve only read. 

When you write out your goal, you’re actually getting the generation effect twice: First, when you generate your goal/plan, you’re creating a picture in your mind. And second, when you write it on paper, you’re regenerating that image; you reprocess your mental picture, put it on the paper, etc. Putting your plan on paper gives you a neurological boost that sears it into your brain.

Once your plan is set and written down, go do it. Pushing yourself to pursue more difficult or scary goals isn’t the only path to career success. But if you have specific moments from the past year when you avoided taking the riskier step, it’s likely worth reminding yourself that the rewards could be significant if you’re willing to take that step in 2022.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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