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What SmartBrief’s top leadership posts of 2021 tell us

What were SmartBrief's most read leadership blog posts this year? Find out in our annual SmartBrief on Leadership recap.

6 min read


What SmartBrief's top leadership posts of 2021 tell us

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Every year, SmartBrief’s Leadership blog publishes a few hundred posts, each with the goal of offering useful advice for being a better and more thoughtful leader, manager, communicator and strategist.

And every year, I look at the most popular blog posts and try to understand what their popularity means. Last year, the motivation was clear: The urgency of dealing with a pandemic, protests and all the ways work was affected.

This year, those circumstances continued, along with a deeper sense of uncertainty about the pandemic’s endgame and of work’s future itself. Getting back to work is less of a hot topic than burnout or the misunderstood Great Resignation.

As always, SmartBrief on Leadership isn’t promising all the answers. There are no simple solutions to never-ending tasks like leadership, remote and hybrid work, communication and juggling public health and politics with running a business. The SmartBrief on Leadership newsletter (please sign up!) exists to pique your curiosity, your desire to make yourself better and your purpose of helping others be better.

I’ve done this recap for several years now. For reference, here are last year’s top posts and 2019’s.

What do these posts mean?

I’ve edited this newsletter for 10 years, and I increasingly reflect on my role in what you read. After all, I edit and post these articles. I approve and edit the writeups of all the links in the email. And while I aim to respond to your needs — and think I do a good job of it — there’s no doubt that you see a lot of what I want you to see.

Namely, I like to give you links that feature recurring or perpetual problems of work, usually ones that cannot be erased but must constantly be managed, reiterated or revisited. If you read SmartBrief on Leadership, you’re getting stories about asking questions, not scripts for how to magically do something. You’ll get more frameworks, fewer five-point instructional guides. More questions, fewer answers. Guides and inquiry, not commandments.

In 2021, the pandemic, burnout, the Great Resignation and a divided country were all key topics for leaders anywhere. But emotional intelligence never goes out of style. Nor do meetings, one-on-ones, trust issues, bad bosses or finding meaningful, sustainable personal growth.

Leadership is a forever endeavor, mostly because it’s really just pomp and circumstance for being an always-improving human being in a complicated world.

Beyond that, January was a popular month! Like last year, many of the most popular posts came from the beginning of the year. I won’t overthink this but to guess that a larger group of people is more energized, resolute in January, at least while goals, deadlines and demands are not yet overwhelming them.

We have many, many tremendous writers and blog posts that did not make these lists (I like to think I wrote one or two good ones!). I say this every year: While I believe the traffic on these posts largely illustrates their quality and relevance, traffic is just one incomplete measure of quality and impact.

Many of the posts you don’t see below were still very popular and/or reached niche audiences (our HR-focused posts, for example, not to mention non-leadership SmartBrief offerings such our renewables podcast by my colleague Sean McMahon).

What’s my success measure? Being something I can proudly deliver to my readers in the hope of making an impact — to pique curiosity, to nudge people in a better direction. Impact is hard to measure, but it takes the form of sharing an author’s post, sending them a note, buying their book or (less often) inquiring about their services. When I get a nice note from a reader, for example, I know we’re doing something right.

The generous folks who write for me are aiming to deliver such impact and meaning, and it’s my job to get them the right audience. If there’s any shortcoming there, it’s mine.

What’s different this year?

I’ve increasingly wondered whether there were differences between the top posts as ranked by website traffic versus the most popular newsletter inclusions. This is a conundrum only I am thinking about!

Long story short, I feel like there are two overlapping but distrinct audiences — one visiting from any number of channels and the other opening responding to a familiar email sender. For example, that 2018 post probably represents someone searching for answers in Google and finding us, rather than someone who checks out our email a few times a week.

Regardless, both lists have tremendous quality and depth, and I hope you browse further.

As always, email me with your thoughts, praise or suggestions. (Although not until January — I’m on vacation until Jan. 3!)

Top 10 SmartBrief on Leadership posts (overall)

  1. “Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness,” by John R. Stoker, June 1
  2. “Resolve to stop doing these things as a leader,” by Art Petty, Jan. 5
  3. “Huddle up each morning,” by Naphtali Hoff, Jan. 13
  4. “Can managing your expectations improve your emotional intelligence?” by John R. Stoker, Aug. 17
  5. “How well-being can help people get through hard times,” by LaRae Quy, Sept. 15
  6. “Plan regular 1-to-1 meetings,” by Naphtali Hoff, Feb. 10
  7. “14 ways to improve interdepartmental communication,” by Young Entrepreneur Council, May 5, 2018
  8. “The best advice people can give their younger selves,” by LaRae Quy, Jan. 20
  9. “Introverted leaders are hidden talent who can move your company forward,” by Joel Garfinkle, Jan. 18
  10. “Getting workplace overwhelm under control,” by Elisabeth Hayes, Sept. 21

Top 10 SmartBrief on Leadership posts (Leadership newsletter referrals)

  1. “Huddle up each morning,” by Naphtali Hoff, Jan. 13
  2. “Plan regular 1-to-1 meetings,” by Naphtali Hoff, Feb. 10
  3. “Resolve to stop doing these things as a leader,” by Art Petty, Jan. 5
  4. “Leadership behaviors that diminish trust,” by Marlene Chism, Oct. 4
  5. “Avoid getting blindsided: Turn your managers into leaders,” by Marlene Chism, Feb. 1
  6. “The ‘brilliant jerk’ dilemma and why so many managers get it wrong,” by Art Petty, May 27
  7. “Develop your presentation media: The slide deck,” by Stephanie Scotti, July 29
  8. “This is not a forever virtual business world,” by James M. Kerr, July 12
  9. “Can managing your expectations improve your emotional intelligence?” by John R. Stoker, Aug. 17
  10. “Leadership fatigue is a thing — make time to recharge,” by Art Petty, Oct. 28