What Becoming a Better Leader Has in Common with Losing Weight

What leadership goals and weight loss have in commonSometimes my personal life and my professional life intersect in ways that pleasantly surprise me.

I’ve been collaborating with colleagues on a book that guides users through a process to improve some aspect of themselves in service of becoming a better leader titled Change Now! Five Steps to Better Leadership. A complexity of the process is that we point out three types of goals that individuals can set to guide their change efforts: behavioral goals, competency goals, and outcome goals. It would have been easier to explain and easier for people to do if there were just one type of goal!  However, after reviewing the research on goal-setting and reflecting on our own experiences working with individuals who were pursuing development goals, we decided the three types of goals was a complexity we needed to keep.

At about the time we were finalizing the book, I joined Weight Watchers.  For the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking about my need to lose weight. When CCL hosted a Weight Watchers group for employees, I decided this was the opportunity I needed to be more intentional about this general desire of mine. And I knew that a lot of people had success with the program, so I was optimistic.

Soon after starting the program and learning about the different tactics I was being encouraged to use, it struck me:  Weight Watchers is using all three types of goals that we spell out in our book!

  • Behavioral goals aim at changing a specific action.  There’s nothing ambiguous about behavioral goals. You either display the behavior or you don’t. In Weight Watchers, behavioral goals are called “weight-loss friendly routines.” There’s a list of 16 routines (e.g., eat breakfast every day, get up and walk at least five minutes each hour). I chose three to commit to and each day logged whether I took the action. Likewise, if you are a leader working to become a better listener, an example of a behavioral goal would be to always listen to others in meetings before stating your own point of view. Just like with routines, those around you would notice these changes in behaviors.
  • Competency goals aim at improving a broad ability.  Abilities aren’t measured in a single action or even a set of actions. They are a combination of knowledge, skill, and perspective. The Weight Watchers program is focused on a particular competency goal:  enhancing my ability to make healthier choices when it comes to food and exercise. I had to learn about power foods. I had to practice new shopping and cooking skills. I had to examine and shift some of my attitudes about food and exercise. For a leader, there are a whole range of abilities that he or she might want to improve, such as strategic thinking or delegation or managing conflict. And just like becoming more competent at making healthier choices, developing these abilities requires gaining knowledge, practicing skills, and shifting perspectives.
  • Outcome goals aim at accomplishments that move you toward your broader aspirations. In Weight Watchers, the most visible outcome goals were my target weight goals. Although my broader aspiration was to lose 25 pounds (and keep it off), the program has participants set intermediate goals that can be achieved more quickly (e.g., lose 5% of your body weight). Similarly, goals that target intermediate outcomes can move leaders toward their broader aspirations. And the resulting sense of accomplishment keeps motivation high.  For example, a leader whose broader aspirations are to become a more active leader in his or her community might set the outcome goal to join two nonprofit boards in the community within the next year.

My contention is that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is not all that different from becoming a better listener or more capable of managing conflict or more engaged as a community leader. My experience in Weight Watchers reinforced for me the validity of one of our key messages to leaders who want to improve: To change and grow in a focused area of leadership, you need to make use of all three types of goals—behavioral goals to quickly take up some habits that will serve you well, competency goals to build in-depth knowledge and skills, and outcome goals to keep you engaged and motivated along the way.

When you think about your own efforts to change as a leader, which of types of goals have worked best for you?  Have you found creative ways to use goals to guide and motivate change?

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About Cindy McCauley

Cindy McCauley is a Senior Fellow in Research & Innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership. She is co-editor of The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development and Experience-Driven Leader Development. Her research and practical experience has made her an advocate for using on-the-job experience as a central leader development strategy, for seeing leadership as a product of the collective, and for integrating constructive-developmental theories of human development into leadership development practice.
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2 Responses to What Becoming a Better Leader Has in Common with Losing Weight

  1. avatar Jeneva Patterson says:

    Hi Cindy –

    This is so useful and so obvious in many ways but elusive for many of us! I’ll use this over here in Brussels now that I’m commuting to and from the EMEA office from home. My goal was to bike each day. That’s become a difficult practice to maintain. However, like your 5% body weight, I can commit 3 times a week and the other 2 days I can drive and add doing errands onto the commute back home. Thank you!

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