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The Secret to Setting Goals You’ll Keep This Year

Executive Summary

Goal setting is the easy part of personal growth. Keeping them is harder. Leadership expert Mark Sanborn discovered through interviews with top business owners and executives that goals are easier to reach when you have clarity.

  • To practice intentional leadership, you must match clarity with action.
  • There are four types of leaders which are separated by their degree of clarity and intentionality.
  • With the tenuous political climate and diversified demographics, it's clear the world is changing. Take actions towards your goals that are relevant to the world as it is, not as it was.

We’re a little over a month into 2020. How are those New Year resolutions going?

If you’ve already fallen off the personal growth wagon, don’t worry. I have good news for you. I’ve interviewed hundreds of top leaders across multiple industries and discovered that setting goals requires one secret ingredient we can all acquire: clarity.

No one reaches the top of Mt. Everest accidentally.

To reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world is one of humanity’s great achievements. Even if the occasional amateur climber does make the top, he or she doesn’t do so without a great deal of determination, extensive planning, preparation and sustained effort. There’s no other way to get there. To summit Everest requires an elite level of goal setting, mental focus and physical endurance that is simply beyond the scope of most people. You can’t do it on a whim. In fact, you can die if you aren’t 100 percent committed to the goal (and even the 100% committed sometimes die anyway).

To repeat: no one reaches the top of Mt. Everest accidentally.

And the same is true of successful leaders.

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Working with a group of 20 or so successful business leaders a few years ago, I noticed something subtle but telling. Many of the people in the room that day were torn, not sure exactly what it was they really wanted to do going forward. Some were chasing more than one rabbit and catching none. Others were trying lots of different things, not just in the spirit of innovation but because they weren’t sure what they really wanted to do; what they should do; or what they could do. And in that discussion we uncovered the power of intention. But not the kind of intention that might typically come to mind.


The first thing one needs to move beyond goal-setting to leading effective change (to metaphorically climb Mt. Everest) is clarity.

No one who has done anything great did it by chance. Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet by chance; Michelangelo didn’t end up with the Sistine Chapel; and Neil Armstrong didn’t suddenly find himself on the moon. Each one achieved greatness starting from a single point: clarity of vision; of goal; of purpose. They knew exactly where they wanted to go. People do win the lottery; but no one creates greatness just by buying a random ticket.

And if greatness doesn’t happen by chance, neither does great business leadership. When I applied this idea of clarity to the thousands of clients with whom I’ve worked over the years in nearly every imaginable marketplace, I see the difference between the mediocre and the great: clarity. The great ones knew where they wanted to go; the mediocre ones kinda had an idea. Many had no idea at all. With clarity, everything works. Without it, nothing works.

What does clarity look like when it comes to a business leader? I asked that very question to Jesse Cole, owner and chief showman of the Savannah Bananas, one of the most unusual and successful baseball teams in the U.S., and founder of Fans First Entertainment. Here’s what he said: “The name of our company is Fans First Entertainment. Our mission is ‘Fans First. Entertain Always.’ We believe we can provide the best fan experience in the world. That’s what we want to be known for and it’s what we stand for.”

But Isn’t the Road to Hell Paved with Good Intentions?

If you are old enough, you might have heard your parents tell you that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Those words were in response to a failed effort on your part. You were going to take out the garbage—you “intended to”—but it never got done. The point was that aspiring, agreeing or planning to do something aren’t the same as doing it. When it comes to intention, clarity is the starting point, but it isn’t enough. Clarity counts for nothing if not coupled with consistent and correct action.

Intentional leadership is a combination of clarity and action. To put it in plain terms: know where you want to go (clarity) and take consistent action on how you want to get there (intention).

So What Kind of Leader are You?

It is very easy to assess your leadership effectiveness along these two dimensions of clarity and intentionality. In the diagram below, you’ll not only discover where you are in your leadership journey, but you’ll also understand the success or failure of the leaders you work with.

diagram of intention and clarity in leadership

No Leadership: You obviously don’t want to be here. This isn’t a starting point, it is a failure point. No assured sense of direction and little if any consistent action.

Vague Leadership: You embrace the concept of “ready, fire, aim.” You constantly introduce bold new initiatives. You have a bias for action. You want your teams in high gear and every person in every department must be busy.

Some leaders think they can achieve greatness simply by setting lofty goals. Others don’t set any goals at all, aside from some vague directive to increase sales. Either way, your chances of reaching the summit are low indeed if you’re not taking the right and consistent actions to get there.

Vague leadership results in misstarts, wasted resources and energy. Worse, there’s a very good chance you’ll end up where you don’t want to be.

Wishful Leadership: If you’re in this quadrant, you know where you want to go, but you either haven’t figured out how to get there or you aren’t taking the necessary action to do so. You want to climb Mt. Everest but you haven’t taken climbing lessons, or if you once took them, you’re not practicing what you learned.

The wishful leader listens to his experts, takes lots of notes, convenes many meetings but then never drives for completed action. Information gathering substitutes for action taking. The inundation of information can be paralyzing, particularly in this day and age when Big Data seems to be driving every business decision.

Intentional Leadership: In 2020, there will be no accidental leaders who achieve sustained success. Sure, there will be flukes and anomalies, but intention is required to create the future you aspire to for you and your team.

Intentional leadership is knowing where you want to go and taking consistent action in the world as it is, not in the world that was, to get there.

Sometimes leaders take actions that might have worked in the world that was, but not the world that is. The world as it is has placed demands on today’s leader that have radically changed the game. You’ve likely seen these ideas discussed elsewhere – ideas like culture, inspiration, and the ever-changing economy. What you probably haven’t seen is how these three forces connect, because they all feed into one another. And it’s at their point of intersection that we find the heart of true business leadership in today’s world.

If intention is the word of 2020, how do you use it to lead effectively? It comes down to two simple but powerful questions:

  • What do we aspire to do?
  • Are we taking the consistent action to do it?

Bring It Home

Confession time... I have a phobia of commitment. Ideas will sprout out of my head like daisies in the spring only to wilt weeks later because I didn't nourish them. I'm a serial domain buyer. Take a look at my GoDaddy account and you'll find at least 12 registered URLs. I've built four websites, only one of which I actually drive traffic to.

Have you ever been in a season where your creativity consumed you; where brainstorming was the only activity that sparked joy? While setting aside time for these moments is necessary, too much dreaming and not enough doing will lead to a lack of clarity. Goal setting is nearly impossible without an understanding of what we want to do and how we want to do it. What are professional goals for 2020? Tell us your strategy for accomplishing them in the comments. ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn is a professional speaker, author and leadership strategist who has lived in the Denver area for 30+ years. His business, Sanborn & Associates, Inc. helps leaders at every level learn to lead or lead better.

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