You’ve no doubt seen (and read) a lot of posts trying to sum up 2020. Whether it’s a list of the best books of the year, or a list of the best lists of 2020, it’s only natural to look back at the end of the year and review what we’ve learned.
And hopefully, you’ll have learned something.
The end-of-year review is my absolute favorite time of year because it allows me to go back and look at the impact I created over the past twelve months. Most years I carve out the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and settle down with my calendar, my checkbook, my to-do lists, my journal, and a legal pad so I can thoroughly review everything I did.
I’ll go through my calendar first and look at how I spent my time; in most years I travel extensively, so I evaluate whether or not a trip was worth the cost in time, money, and relationships. I’ll go through my checkbook and budget and evaluate purchases on the same basis: were they worth it in the end? You get the general idea—I go through the major markers of my life and reflect on the value they added to others, the value they added to me, and whether or not there’s more value to be created in the coming year.
Once I’ve completed that process of review, I’m ready to sit down and plan out how I spend my time, financial, and relational resources for the coming year.
I also spend time jotting down things I learned over the course of the year, things that stood out to me as a leader. Sometimes, these observations make their way into my talks in the coming year; sometimes, they’re just reminders for myself and my team.
This year, because of its uniqueness, there were plenty of observations about things I learned, one of the biggest being that we often unlearn lessons that are vitally important! Of the four things I’m going to share with you in the rest of this blog, none of them are new or ground-breaking; in fact, I’ve learned them all before at different times and under different circumstances.
But I unlearned them somewhere along the way and 2020 brought them back to my mind.
I want to share these lessons with you because they should carry over into 2021; in fact, I think all four of them should be at the forefront of our minds as leaders and teammates over the next twelve months. We do not want another 2020 to come along because we couldn’t keep these necessary lessons close to our hearts.
Lesson 1: Difficult Times Separate Growers from Groaners
Our character comes out during challenging times. If we’re growers, then we’re the kind of person who rolls with the punches, looks for options and opportunities, hopes for the best while working to make it happen, and keeps putting one foot in front of the other because we know it will help us in the long run. Growers stay in the fight because they believe in possibility.
Groaners, on the other hand, give up the fight (if they ever took it on to begin with!). They’re the kind of person who stops dead in their tracks, complaining—loudly—about how much they wish things could just be like the used to be. They groan about having to change and then groan when the those changes are painful. Groaners don’t do anything to make the difficult times any easier.
Lesson 2: There’s No Such Thing as Fully Prepared
In the midst of challenging circumstances, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that we don’t know the future as well as we think. Even the best prepared leaders can be caught out by the unexpected—something that COVID illustrated pretty well. We might prepare for one set of circumstances only to face something completely different.
Even the smartest person cannot plan and prepare for every contingency; there are limits to what we can know, see, and plan for. Because of that, being caught off-guard isn’t a crime, or even a bad thing—provided we acknowledge the truth of our situation. When leaders refuse to accept and address reality, they compound the trouble that’s in front of them and make it harder to resolve.
Lesson 3: There Is Nowhere to Hide in A Crisis
When things are going well, it’s easier for people to get by with poor work habits, unintentional growth, and middling relationship skills. Prosperity covers a multitude of sins, and often we as leaders excuse things in ourselves and our teams that would cost us dearly if circumstances were different. Well, in a crisis, circumstances are different, and the lax attitudes and habits that we glossed over during the good times come directly to the front in the bad times.
Think of a lake in the middle of a drought; the longer the drought, the less water there is in the lake—as the water recedes, you begin to see more and more of the trash that the water covered over. The good news is that once the trash is revealed, you can clean it up and establish better habits to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Lesson 4: Hope is a Choice
Of all the 2020 lessons, this one is my favorite. While many companies have done what’s necessary to pivot and remain in business, not all companies have actually embraced hope. Sometimes, we choose to act out of desperation; we swing for the fences simply because we don’t know what else to do. That’s not the same as hope.
Hope takes big swings, but it does so with the expectation that things will get better—that the actions we take today will produce positive outcomes tomorrow or down the line. Hope says there is a way forward as long as we work to find it; all other positions, from pessimism to pragmatism to optimism, suggest that the future is out of our hands. Hopeful leaders know this is simply not true—we can choose to shape the future, even if we can’t control it.
Whatever the rest of your 2020 holds, I encourage you to set aside time for genuine reflection on the year that was and the year that is to come. While we don’t know what 2021 has in store, I am positive that if we’ll combine the lessons of 2020 with the power of reflection and review, we can make 2021 an even better year than we could imagine.
John C. Maxwell is the Founder of Maxwell Leadership and the Maxwell Leadership Foundation, organizations that have transformed millions of leaders from every country of the world.