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Why Great Leadership Starts with Reflection

Young woman with a cocktail.

You’ve probably been bombarded in recent weeks with articles and advertising that tout new approaches and products to improve your productivity, your health, and your life. Do this. Try that. Buy one of these. Some of those suggestions might have merit but, as an executive coach, I believe self-improvement is more of an “inside job.”

If we want to make a real difference in our careers and our lives, we need to start with reflection and self-awareness.

I realize that time-crunched, get-it-done-now leaders might think this is counterproductive, but it’s actually essential. If leaders don’t have their own “internal stuff” sorted out, they simply can’t function at full speed to guide their teams and inspire great performance. It’s the business equivalent of the pre-flight announcement: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you.

Reflection is a simple but powerful process. There’s no real secret to it; just make it a habit to reflect and write down what you have learned each day, each week, and each month. By tracking this progress, you’ll become much more aware of your personal growth. You’ll see patterns and identify changes that give you valuable insights for the future. The benefits can be impressive:

  1. Greater clarity of purpose

  2. Stronger confidence to take on bigger challenges

  3. Faster results

  4. Enhanced empathy

  5. Increased willingness to seek additional feedback

Here’s an example of an internal conversation that might happen while reflecting:

You: “Wow, that was a waste of time.”

Your Reflective Self: What made it seem that way?”

You: “I drove all the way to that meeting, and it could easily have been done over the phone.”

Your Reflective Self: “I know that in-person meetings help to build relationships, which is important to me.”

You: “True. But that would be the only redeeming thing about spending an afternoon on the other side of town.”

Your Reflective Self: “So what options do I have the next time I’m invited to those meetings?”

Developing alternatives based on goals

It’s essential to have clear goals to effectively apply what we learn from reflecting. Without them, we move along aimlessly on autopilot. As we brainstorm for new courses of action, our goals help us to set parameters. Returning to the example, imagine thinking about your alternatives in light of your business goals:

  1. Do I want to increase personal productivity?

  2. Do I want to become more assertive?

  3. Do I want to improve relationships with coworkers?

  4. Do I want to help employees grow and develop?

Moving from annoyed to solution-focused

Guided by our goals, we can use reflection to help us develop better solutions instead of just feeling annoyed about a situation. Many times, the best choice even seems obvious based on our objectives. Here are a few options that might emerge in our example:

  1. Carpool with others from your office so you can maximize the time invested for building relationships.

  2. Take mass transit so you can be more productive during the travel time.

  3. Schedule other meetings nearby on the same day to maximize your time in that area.

  4. Be assertive in making the meeting time more productive. Suggest alternative formats, and work with colleagues in advance to define discussion items that could most benefit from real-time group input.

  5. Ask the meeting organizer for the agenda prior to saying yes. (This is a big one. If the agenda doesn’t exist, you’ll be prompting the organizer to create one—and you may discover your presence isn’t necessary.)

  6. Send a subordinate to the meeting to help that person learn more about the business, begin building relationships, and start taking on more responsibility.

  7. Be greedy with your time and just say no.

Although it takes some discipline to form the habit of reflection, it’s definitely worth the effort. Greater self-awareness can also catapult careers to the next level. If leadership success is one of your goals this year, I hope you’ll remember that reflection is an important prerequisite.

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