The ability to set and stick to a goal is invaluable. There is lots to be said for self-discipline, growth mindset, and motivation in the management literature – and a lot is said about them – but they all have one thing in common. If we can’t determine clear-cut goals that are worth pursuing, none of our well-intentioned efforts will amount to much.
Think of it this way: if we’re unclear on what we want to excel at in three years time, how can we focus our energy?
How can we identify and avoid potential distractions (self-discipline) without knowing what they look like?
How can we understand whether we’re putting enough work into our own development (growth mindset), or appreciate when we need a push (motivation)?
Goal-setting is an essential personal leadership skill – it’s fundamental to your ability to enhance yourself as a person, so you can better lead others. Whether you want more emotional intelligence, stronger coaching skills, or a ‘bigger picture’ perspective for strategizing, goal-setting is at the heart of turning those intentions into effective behavior.
But to implement it effectively, we need to understand its three stages and why they matter.
Why Goal-Setting is a Key Leadership Skill
It’s important first of all to distinguish between goal-setting as a management task, and setting goals in a personal leadership context. While great leadership absolutely entails goal-setting for the organization – we are all familiar with performance management objectives, strategic directions, and of course, deadlines – but this post relates only to the latter.
Personal leadership goal-setting is an individual practice, and one which is focused on your growth as a person. Drawing on Locke and Latham’s well-known work into the cognitive psychology of goal-setting, we can define it as:
“The formulation of clear, specific, and appropriate goals that will direct our attention, mobilize our effort, and drive our behavior toward a specific desired outcome”.
In a personal leadership context, your goals could relate to any one of numerous domains – communication, time management, cultural awareness, and so forth – but they have one thing in common. For all of them, you have identified a specific area that you would like to work on, and doing so will make you a better leader.
The Psychology of Goal-Setting
So how do we get started? The internet is packed full of familiar acronyms that are designed to make things quick and straightforward – like SMART and OKR. Stepping a bit further into the research, however, will quickly reveal that these frameworks don’t cover everything.
For instance, Wilma is set on becoming a less ‘absent’ mentor for Pedro, her direct report.
Implementing the SMART acronym, she outlines Specific steps to get from A – where she believes she is – to B, where she would like to be nine months from now. She plans Measurable, Time-Delineated steps for her actions (have 2 weekly meetings with Pedro by November, help Pedro get his side project started by January, etc.), and has checked that these are both Attainable/Achievable and Realistic.
Around October, Wilma is asked to speak at a massive conference overseas. It’s a brilliant opportunity career-wise, she stands to make loads of new contacts, and on and on – to miss it would be foolish. She can do those bi-weekly meetings via video chat, but she’s essentially just going through the motions as her mind is elsewhere. In between, she has little time for Pedro.
What went wrong?
Goal-setting is more than memorizing and implementing acronyms – our lasting change and personal development deserves a more considered approach. Think of learning as an ongoing path toward mastery – like a language, a fun sport, or an art. When you have reached a certain level of competence, that skill will be with you for life.
You will still be learning, but you’ll already be able to apply that effective influencing, that coaching finesse, or that empathetic approach at a higher level of competence for greater engagement and outcomes.
In my next article, I will cover what went wrong with Wilma’s plans and introduce the three key steps I mentioned earlier. I’ll outline how she could have used goal-setting much more effectively by drawing on well-established, empirical findings that simply haven’t received as much hype as SMART or OKR. To follow this series, join us on LinkedIn!