• Self-improvement doesn't need to be painful, especially during a pandemic.
  • Rather than set yet another gym goal, look inward, retrain your brain, and get outside, says Hirotaka Takeuchi.
  • Different activities that help physical and mental growth are important.

Ambitious New Year’s resolutions often end in disappointment. So instead of setting unrealistic goals in 2022, business leaders should consider making smaller, simpler changes—and they just might see better results, says Harvard Business School Professor Hirotaka Takeuchi.

At a time when we’ve all been forced to accept uncertainty during the pandemic, Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, coauthors of the 2019 book The Wise Company, recently developed “six practices to make a better future” to help leaders focus on the most important drivers of simultaneous success for themselves, their companies, and the world at large. Their ideas recently appeared in the article Humanizing Strategy in the journal Long Range Planning.

Here, Takeuchi explains how business leaders can use the six practices to guide their own self-improvement efforts in the new year:

1. Develop routines, orkata

As we gain the ability to collect and analyze more data more quickly, decision-making and problem-solving have become increasingly complex. Many people look to technology to solve modern problems, but the more technology advances, the more human reasoning and creativity is often needed to shape and apply it, Takeuchi says.

"In this very turbulent world, we really need something like kata to make our lives a little better every day."

To exercise those human strengths and remain centered amid mounting complexity, Takeuchi recommends developing and using kata, a Japanese word that means specific routines, as a means to keep your thoughts and actions in sync with your mission, whether on a personal level or within the business context. For example, at Toyota, “ask why five times,” is a kata that helps employees determine the root causes of problems.

“In this very turbulent world, we really need something like kata to make our lives a little better every day,” Takeuchi says.

2. Ask the right questions

When navigating uncertain waters, an ingrained sense of purpose serves as a rudder. To maintain the necessary balance between agility and stability, leaders and successful companies must develop practical ways of staying true to their mission.

Most businesses have spent time establishing their mission, vision, and values, but few people can succinctly verbalize them on a personal level. When conducting interviews with graduate students, Takeuchi takes a three-question approach. To become more adaptable, consider resolving to answer these questions for yourself:

Why were you born? (mission)What kind of future do you want to create? (vision)What do you hold dear? (values)

3. Retrain your brain to consider “both/and”

There’s a tendency, especially in the West, to think of things in “either/or” terms, but issues are rarely so clear-cut, Takeuchi says.

“This intellectual tradition,” Takeuchi and Nonaka write, “is reflected in the debates over dualism—such as mind versus body, subject versus object, rationality versus empiricism, materialism versus idealism, and much more. In management, it is represented by debates over machines versus humans, analytics versus intuition, economic versus societal value, exploration versus exploitation, egoism versus altruism, etc.”

"What we need to do is think of the oneness of nature and our livelihood."

In the coming year, consider resolving to retrain your mind to think in terms of “both/and” instead of “either/or,” Takeuchi recommends. Changing how we frame such debates within ourselves can result in understanding the world through a lens of oneness, where what is good for the person or company is good for society as well.

“On a very practical level, I think what we need to do is think of the oneness of nature and our livelihood,” says Takeuchi.

4. Read and empathize more

Empathy is an essential ingredient for maintaining healthy relationships, whether with clients, customers, or a significant other. It might seem like people are either empathetic or not, but you can increase your ability to empathize.

Takeuchi, whose research weaves together strands from various disciplines, including history, neuroscience, anthropology, and more, stresses the importance of a liberal arts education. Even if your college days are well behind you, it’s not too late to pick up classic works of literature—he especially likes Jane Austen—as a way to practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

“Their shoes probably stink, but that’s what you need to do,” he says.

5. Watch the top 10 speeches of all time

Storytelling is the most effective way to communicate ideas and promote understanding, the coauthors contend.

“Stories become a prism through which humans live,” Takeuchi and Nonaka write.

Being able to effectively use metaphors and analogies translates to the ability to persuade and affect change. “The power of rhetoric is something we can learn,” says Takeuchi.

To improve your narration abilities in the year ahead, Takeuchi recommends listening to the top 10 speeches ever delivered, or the 10 most popular TED Talks of all time.

a list of the top New Year's resolutions planned for 2022
2022 New Year's resolutions.
Image: National World

6. Try a high-energy outdoor activity

By connecting with nature, we increase our appreciation of the need to live in harmony with it. As the world confronts climate change, resource depletion, deforestation, and other environmental challenges, it has never been more important for leaders and organizations to internalize these problems and find ways to help solve them.

Living with nature can mean a quiet walk in the woods, but it can also involve experiencing the essence of your immediate surroundings in other ways. For example, when Takeuchi travels outside Japan and the United States, he always makes a point of first visiting an open-air market.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

“To me, seeing is believing, so for every country that we go to, we always visit the open market, because that’s where you see real living,” he says. “You see it out in the open.”

"Coming down the mountain at full speed, there’s nothing like it."

People experience nature in all sorts of ways, but Takeuchi especially recommends adopting a high-energy outdoor hobby this year. He enjoys downhill skiing.

“Coming down the mountain at full speed, there’s nothing like it,” says Takeuchi, who recently turned 75. “You are facing near-death because you don’t know what’s underneath, so you have to rely on your guts and your intuition … It’s such a thrill, but also a big interface with nature. I just love it.”