Thinking about today’s brand of leadership it seems to me that the shear pace and complexity that leaders encounter on a daily basis has all but eroded one of the fundamental leadership disciplines. I am referring here to the discipline of ‘reflection’: taking deliberate time to think about one’s leadership. It is the intentional pause, during which real listening and observation become possible midst the drowning cacophony and clutter of busy lives. Stillness and introspection do not enjoy popular support within leadership development and if they do get a mention it is usually spoken about rather than experienced. In the content driven approach to leadership development this is perhaps hardly surprising. Such practices are not normally associated with leadership, yet without them, I am not sure that reliable leadership is possible.
Given the importance of the discipline of reflection in the development of yourself as a leader I want to offer you some thoughts on writing reflections as a beginning to the development of this critical habit.
Reflections offer us time to think aloud, about what has happened and our role in that; about what to change and how to change things; it affords us the opportunity to develop clarity and courage. Meg Wheatley, in her book, Finding Our Way, frames it this way, “If we want our world to be different, our first act needs to be reclaiming time to think. Nothing will change for the better until we do that”. She goes on to add, “Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin”.
So here then are some random thoughts as to how best to capitalize on this wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the leader you are and the leader you hope to become.
When it comes to recording reflections on your leadership…
It is not an academic requirement. In reality this is exactly what they might be (should you find yourself part of some or other leadership development programme) or this is perhaps how you started out in your approach to the task. However if you adopt this mindset, you will never explore the depths the exercise invites. This needs to be about you and primarily for you. It is not something that ‘needs to get done’ and I would encourage you to resist undertaking this task with such an attitude.
Write for yourself. Others may get to read what you write but the moment you write with this possibility in mind (that others will read your reflection), you erode the authenticity of the reflection. Write as though no one else will read what you write. Write from both the head and the heart and in a manner that you are satisfied with when complete. Don’t write to impress someone else.
Be honest. One of the most difficult things that I have encountered in my own journaling experience is the ability to be honest. “I can’t write that” I would catch myself thinking as I acted as my own censor to my reflections. The ability to reflect honestly might well come easier for some that for but it remains a journey that all who desire to be authentic leaders need to undertake. You will be the only one who can determine what ‘being honest’ looks like but I invite you to begin to reflect honestly even if being honest looks messy, irrational and open-ended. Honest writing leaves an imprint on all fortunate enough to encounter such treasure. But you know this because I am sure you have encountered such writing in your own journey.
Reflection is a habit. Without reflection we often go on blindly along our way ignoring the lessons offered to us day in and day out. Trying then to trawl these collective memories for what they teach becomes difficult and results in many gems slipping through the net. Keep a journal in which you capture your experiences and reflections on an ongoing basis. You can determine what ‘ongoing’ looks like. It is a good habit to acquire and savvy leaders cultivate good habits. It is amazing to me how much I do, but how little time I spend reflecting on what I just did. Currently I am doing some research on what ‘survival’ takes and why it is that in moments of physical crisis, some live, some die and why this is so. I think that there will be some insightful lessons for those in leadership and this is where I am heading with the research. However, one obvious early lesson to emerge is that those who survive the crisis, whatever it may be, were prepared. But here is the lesson: their preparation did not begin the moment the crisis hit, but rather took place before they encountered the particular hardship they found themselves in. The crisis only served to reveal what was already there. Their character was not forged by the crisis but rather the crisis served to reveal their character. The benefits and fruit borne out of reflection are revealed in the inevitable crisis that leaders everywhere will have to face.
Look for patterns. Over time reflections offer us the chance to see and identify patterns in our own leadership journey. This can be helpful in our development and in taking responsibility for our attitudes and subsequent actions. People who ‘blame others’ are those who remain blind to patterns in their behavior that would empower them to take responsibility for who they are and who it is they wish to become. So keep your reflections and re-read them from time to time. You might be surprised by what you find as you do so.
Great questions to help shape your reflection: For some, getting in touch with their internal and external responses comes almost naturally. They are the lucky few! Here are some questions I have found useful in helping to shape my reflections until a more natural style emerges:
– What was the situation? (Briefly describe the context, events you encountered)
– What was my response / part in the events and how did it make me feel?
– How does my response reveal something of my past, my present and possibly my future?
– Pause and read your reflection and then ask: what would I say to myself having read this reflection?
– What will I take with me as a result of this reflection? (here the ‘answer’ might only emerge over time but it is worth asking the question at the time as well as reflecting on possible lessons further ‘down the road’)
Leadership has for a long time, bent towards extroversion. Parker Palmer in, ‘Let your Life Speak’ put it this way: “Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend towards extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we ‘compartmentalize’ it, walling it off from our public work.” Savvy Leaders work hard to reclaim this lost ground and neglected aspect of leadership. This discipline becomes a tool that is fundamental and foundational to authentic leadership. Reclaiming the time and space to reflect, to think, will not be without struggle (and I’m sure the usual chorus of skeptics) but those serious about leadership, cannot afford not to strike out purposefully in this direction.
I hope that something offered here would enable you to further develop your ability to reflect as a natural reflex in your leadership character.
Belum. (An Indonesian word that implies a ‘journey continued’… )