A Big Leadership Goal: Keep It Simple

Big ambitions are great for your association, but there's value in stepping back and making sure everybody's included in your strategy conversations.

If you’ve started the new year eager to tackle that big to-do list full of strategic goals and moonshot ideas, that’s to your credit. But is the attitude you’re bringing to that list going to encourage everybody around you to come along for the ride?

What do you need to accomplish so you can look back and say 2020 was a successful year?

This year might be a good opportunity to try something a little counterintuitive: slow down and aspire to do less. Writing in Strategy + Business magazine, Adam Bryant proposes making January a “simplification month.” He writes: “In business, as in nature, complexity inevitably creeps into any ecosystem. Initiatives are introduced, and then people lose interest in when they are no longer the shiny new toys…. Strategy decks grow longer and busier, adding bullet points, tiered pyramids, and corkscrew arrows to describe where the company is going.”

I suspect the feeling is often just as pronounced at associations around this time, especially if your fiscal year closes at the end of June: You’re halfway done with this year, and anxiety creeps up about having something to show for it. But that’s all the more reason to slow down and focus, Bryant suggests. By taking January as a month to do some housecleaning around your strategy and the tactics you’re using to implement them, you can spare yourself a lot of wasted effort.

Bryant frames the concept around a simple question: “What are the three or four things that you need to accomplish over the next 12 months so that, at this time next year, you can look back and say that 2020 was a successful year?”

A good question, to which I’d add two more: Who are the people who are going to help you answer that question? And are you sure you have the right people on board to answer it?

They’re questions worth asking because of one point that Bryant makes: As a consultant, he’s observed that senior leadership teams often have overly lengthy lists of priorities. That suggests that leadership is often encouraged to be performatively hard-charging. After all, how do you know you’re a hardworking leader unless you’re talking up lots of priorities?

But perhaps we privilege that line of thinking too much. A report released last week by the Myers-Briggs company notes that while more contemplative and introverted people are valued by a majority of leaders around the world (57 percent), only 39 percent of U.S. leaders prefer introverts. The attitude is even more pronounced in the United Kingdom, where only 28 percent of leaders prefer introverts. (Myers-Briggs released this information on January 2 to celebrate World Introvert Day, which I imagine is the only day when the people being honored really, really want to skip the party.)

This neglect can have consequences, since an extrovert-focused C-suite can freeze out the introverts, who often prefer to think through an issue before commenting on it—and even if they have valuable ideas to contribute on the spot, they’re likely less willing to elbow their way into a discussion. And the Myers-Briggs report suggests that there’s also a gender imbalance at play: Women tend to be more “feeling” introverts, “meaning they make decisions based on individual values and an understanding of how people are affected,” as the report puts it. While men are more likely to be “thinking” ones. Given the disproportionately low percentage of women leaders, certain attitudes are simply foreclosed on.

None of this is a knock on extroversion, per se, or to suggest that introverts are such wilting flowers that they need to be coddled in the workplace. As I wrote last year in relation to a study on extroverted leaders, introverts are fine with extroverts if they’re seen as authentic. But the easiest way for a leader to claim authenticity is by engaging with the people who are most likely to be thinking about their leadership.

A month of simplification can mean sunsetting outdated ideas and sharpening your association’s goals. And it can also mean championing a very simple idea among staff: That everybody deserves to have their voice heard.

(Enis Aksoy/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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