mental checklist for leaders

A Mental Checklist for the New Year

  1. December 22nd, 2019  | 

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Published in Leadership, Strategic Planning

The end of a year is a paradoxical time.

It’s a bustling time as the holidays approach, searches for special gifts begin, out-of-town trips are taken, and parties are planned, thrown and attended.

In the workplace, the pace can be equally frenetic as teams race to push projects across the finish line, year-end reviews with colleagues are completed, and plans and budgets for the coming year are finalized.

Here’s the paradox: Amid the year-end frenzy there’s an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect on the past year and look to the future of the year that’s about to begin.

It’s a time to prepare a mental checklist of lessons learned and victories won, and to dream of possibilities and priorities for the year ahead.

One hundred years ago, Washington Irving wrote one of his most famous stories: Rip Van Winkle.

This literary classic provides a mental checklist for today’s leaders entering the New Year.

Here’s the story: Rip Van Winkle is a farmer living in the Catskills Mountains at a time preceding America’s Revolutionary War with Great Britain. One day he wanders into the woods and encounters a group of friendly dwarves. Though he’s never met them, they somehow know his name and offer to share their wine with him. Following a few swallows, Rip falls into a deep sleep under a tree. When he awakes, the dwarves are gone, his musket has rusted and his beard has turned white and grown a foot. He walks to the village and—avoiding a series of events that nearly get him killed—is recognized as the long, lost Rip Van Winkle who mysteriously vanished 20 years ago.

Three themes from Rip Van Winkle serve as useful reminders for today’s leaders.

Freedom to choose. Rip Van Winkle wanders into the woods as a subject of King George III and, upon waking, returns to his village to learn America has gained its independence from Great Britain and he’s now free to make his own decisions. While every person makes hundreds of decisions every day, leaders distinguish themselves in their decision-making: the stakes are almost always higher, the number of people affected by their decisions greater, and the responsibility to make the decision is theirs alone. To be a leader, you must make decisions.

How do you establish a framework for ethical decision-making? How do you communicate and instill this framework throughout your organization so it becomes second nature? How do you ensure the decisions you make will yield the results you expect? What do you do if you make a bad decision? How do you respond to controversy, crises, and setbacks? If you’re a leader, you have the freedom to decide your responses to these types of questions. But decide you must.

Progress. The world moves forward as Rip Van Winkle sleeps. In the workplace, tracking is your mechanism for communicating clearly and unambiguously the performance occurring at the enterprise, business unit, departmental and individual levels. Are we making progress?

Tracking progress is what your best employees want. They want to know how they’re doing against their individual objectives and they want to know how their performance is helping the organization achieve its larger objectives. “Is the work I’m doing getting us closer to our goals?”  Study after study confirms that “making progress in meaningful work” is “the single most important” way to keep your team engaged, accountable, and moving forward.

Underperformers don’t like clarity, and they fear tracking because it leaves them no place to hide. Winners love tracking because it showcases their progress.

Change. The changes Rip Van Winkle encountered after waking disoriented him. People can handle only so much change because it’s stressful. So be judicious about the changes you plan to make. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is often asked to predict the future, which he says is the wrong question. “The best question to ask? What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?”

As you prepare for the year ahead, ask and answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What significant changes are occurring that are disrupting the marketplace?
  2. What will be our response to this change?
  3. Do we have the intellectual horsepower, the appropriate processes and the will to win?

The ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of your team, department, or organization is in your hands. People are counting on you to put them in a position to succeed.

To lead effectively, to inspire people to do more than they think they can do, you’re making decisions every day.

Don’t be a modern-day Rip Van Winkle and wake up one day to discover the world has passed you by.

Use this paradoxical time of year—the hustle and bustle of year-end and the opportunity to slow down—to reflect on what you and your team want to be celebrating this time next year.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 200 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents, and he coaches leaders inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book—Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) — is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.

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