Leaders, make aspiration your no.1 New Year's resolution
At a time when we should be setting New Year’s resolutions for 2021, leaders need to demonstrate the aspiration and imagination to navigate continuing uncertainty.
2020 became the year that tested us in unimaginable ways, with ordinary people from all walks of life stepping up and doing extraordinary things in the drive to make things better. At the end of 2020, we felt aspirational, that we’d achieved great things. We had hope.
So it’s an incredibly tough gig that we now find ourselves in January, a new year and in a UK lockdown for the third time. We’ve been pulled back into the eye of the storm. Christmas was happening, then Christmas was cancelled. Schools opened, then schools closed. Restrictions were lowered, now restrictions are tightened.
Times are still tough. People are reeling. Aspirations are dinted. We have a bad case of January blues and an optimism deficit. And it’s hard for leaders to be aspirational, and to inspire, engage and motivate others, when everyone is feeling disengaged and disenchanted.
Even tougher to believe our best days are still ahead in 2021 and that we should be feeling re-energised and making amazing resolutions for how we’re going to be and what we’re going to achieve in 2021. But with continuing uncertainty, planning ahead and setting aspirational goals can seem futile. How can leaders reassure their people that better days are ahead? For sure, we have the vaccine rollout, more experience and better treatments. But we’re not feeling it, vaccinating all adults and a return to normality just seems too far away.
New year, new normal?
So much talk of normal; new normal, better normal. For me, normal is just normal; whatever is the norm currently. But the current normal is one we want to get away from. And we don’t aspire to be normal, we aspire to move away from normal – that’s the nature of change, growth and transformation.
If aspiration is the light at the end of the tunnel, then the current normal is the emerging gap. Let’s keep moving towards the light.
Creating a sense of aspiration
So what does aspiration look and feel like? For some, it’s achieving work or career aspirations. For others, it’s just surviving and getting through the day or situation to the other side. At a time when the norm is to set new goals, how can leaders engage and motivate others to aspire to move forward and achieve the unimaginable?
Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” For leaders, 2020 created many extraordinary and seemingly impossible new possibilities. Carrying them forward and engaging everyone in delivering on intentions takes imagination and passion, and it’s passion that drives good intentions and accelerates possibilities into reality.
What does aspiration mean for leaders?
In the last few years much has been written and espoused about business vision and there’s far more emphasis on taking people with you; connecting with and energising your people so they want to engage in the journey.
In my recent article, ‘Six years, six leadership trends: Connection, disruption and accelerated change’, I talk about how being future-focused requires aspiration. Aspiration is critical for leaders to take people with them to a future place that they didn’t think was possible and to achieve business growth and change that’s beyond expectation.
Aspiration versus expectation
Andrew McKelvey, a serial and relentless entrepreneur, adventurer and CEO of Monster Worldwide, lived by his own rules. As a very successful CEO, his keynote at a meeting in Las Vegas where he talked about the difference between expectation and aspiration was something I’ll never forget and something I share as a lesson in leadership for all of us.
Expectation can be about achievable goals, playing it safe and knowing you will get there. Aspiration is more about the emotion, the dream, future hope and inspiring others to develop the passion to get there. Aspiration takes us further than expectation. Aspiration is about where you’re going, how you will get there and how far we can go beyond expectation. Aspiration is exciting, at times it goes beyond your imagination. But aspiration requires expectation, to create a strong belief that aspirations are likely to happen.
2020 saw sensational headlines world over: ‘Two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months’, and the NHS seeing ‘10 years of technological advancement in 10 days’. From video calls, remote team working and online learning to virtual customer service, even bigger data and real time reporting, the global pandemic has accelerated the replacement of human with technological interaction, at a pace that was unimagined before the pandemic. Aspiration led us there.
Imagination is key
In his book, ‘People Like Us’, Hashi Mohamed talks about “the bigotry of low expectation” and describes his early life as a Somalian refugee, going to a local English school and being expected to achieve little in life. At age 18, he was homeless. Mohamed’s aspirations at the time were limited to the two main aspirations regarded as fit for young black men: football and money. But he believes people sometimes need a little nudge, a little help from role models such as teachers and mentors.
Today, Mohamed has defied a life of poverty and hardship by attending university, being awarded a scholarship to Oxford and becoming a successful barrister. He believes the future is there to be grasped. “The absence of expectation was a liberating force,” he writes, and it marked the beginning of his conscious aspiration to become something beyond his imagination. He says, “I owe my position not only to my own aspiration but to the imagination shown by other people.” Imagination is key for aspiration and injecting social capital by using your network and useful contacts can expand both your imagination and aspiration.
In my coaching practice it’s fundamental for me to recommend that leaders boost their imagination by focusing on extending their network of contacts with un-likeminded people; those leaders and mentors who have achieved great things, who offer a different perspective. Seek out those who are aspirational in their approach and who will inspire you to think beyond the possible.
Achievement stifles aspiration
Achievement is largely the product of steadily raising your level of aspiration and expectation. But, for me, achievement is the enemy of aspiration. If you expect to get there, then you achieve it and you’re there, you’re done.
Last year, before the global pandemic hit, I attended a meeting with a client, a global CEO and we talked about his aspirations for himself, his team and his UK business. He said that he was pleased that the UK business got there, that they had achieved their objectives. His disappointment was that the UK leadership showed no aspiration to take it further, to go beyond the expected results. The events that followed our conversation necessitated aspiration and I’m pleased to report his business did ride the storm and is well on the way to performing beyond expectation.
Aspiration creates opportunity
English poet, playwright and moralist Samuel Johnson famously said, “Our aspirations are our opportunities.” 2020 was the year of achieving seemingly impossible possibilities, when problems and challenges also represented unimaginable opportunities.
If we look east, leading companies in Asia are turning changes driven by the pandemic into opportunities for future value creation. This is in part due to cultivating a culture of agility and being responsive, aggressive and decisive in the face of volatility and uncertainty. Leading Asian companies also set their aspirations higher and follow through with bold commitments, fast pace and scaling up to enable fast and efficient delivery. This approach ensures they survive and grow while other companies wither.
Leaders can learn from this. We can take advantage of all the great things we achieved last year and make bold commitments to continue the pace of change and transformation over the coming year.
Adopting an aspirational mindset
David Gergen, the American political commentator and former presidential adviser who served under four presidents, said, “A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.”
For me, aspirational leadership is all about mindset. Carol Dweck’s work on fixed mindset and growth mindset demonstrates that it's not about being born with talent, it’s about hard work, day in, day out, learning, practice, more practice, trying, failing, more practice, trying again - with the belief that you can improve and will keep improving. Mindset affects thinking, behaviour, actions and outcomes. And sticking to aspirations, even when things aren’t going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. Exceptional people turn setbacks into successes.
For a leader, having a growth mindset is about having three levels of aspiration; having aspiration for yourself, your people and your organisation.
· Self – who do you aspire to become as a leader?
· Your people – how do you develop yourself and your people to get there?
· The organisation – how do we achieve a better organisation, better for us, our colleagues, customers and shareholders?
Aspiration for a new year
Let’s not pay lip service to setting New Year’s resolutions and goals, let's be aspirational and find a way forward. By aspiring to a better future, we can ensure a sense of survival in challenging times. The scientists warned us that this winter would be tough, but we can be confident now that brighter times are ahead.
Writing in 1972, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney gave a sense of survival during bleak times, with a deteriorating political climate and no promise of spring on the horizon when he said:
“If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”
This has most definitely become a winter of discontent. What if we reframe that to a time of ‘restless aspiration for improvement’? Aspiration led us to survive another day, aspiration led us to develop a world-leading vaccine.
Aspiration leads to hope, greater hope.