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Don’t Underestimate the Power of Self-Reflection
- James R. Bailey
- Scheherazade Rehman
Focus on moments of surprise, failure, and frustration.
Research shows the habit of reflection can separate extraordinary professionals from mediocre ones. But how do you sort which experiences are most significant for your development?
- To answer this questions, the authors asked 442 executives to reflect on which experiences most advanced their professional development and had the most impact on making them better leaders.
- Three distinct themes arose through their analysis: surprise, frustration, and failure. Reflections that involved one or more or of these sentiments proved to be the most valuable in helping the leaders grow.
- Surprise, frustration, and failure. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. These parts of you are constantly in motion and if you don’t give them time to rest and reflect upon what you learned from them, you will surely fatigue.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
Empathy, communication, adaptability, emotional intelligence, compassion. These are all skills you need to thrive in the workplace and become a great leader. Time and again, we even hear that these capabilities are the key to making yourself indispensable — not just now but far into the future. Soft skills, after all, are what make us human, and as far as we know, can’t be performed well by technologies like artificial intelligence.
Even so, one competency that is often less talked about is reflection. Research shows the habit of reflection can separate extraordinary professionals from mediocre ones. We would go so far as to argue that it’s the foundation that all other soft skills grow from.
The practice itself is all about learning, looking back on the day (without bias or regret) to contemplate your behavior and its consequences. It requires sitting with yourself, taking an honest moment to think about what transpired, what worked, what didn’t, what can be done, and what can’t. Reflection requires courage. It’s thoughtful and deliberate. Being at the “top of your game” only comes when you extract from your past how to engage the future .
To get its full benefits, you must make reflection a habit. But it’s not simple. Generic questions like “What am I grateful for today? What did I learn? What could I have done better?” are often too general to be helpful.
So, what should you reflect upon? At least 1,000 things happen during the course of the week. How do you sort which experiences are most significant for your development? Simply put, which of the myriad of things that flew across your life are worthy of scrutiny?
What Our Research Says
To answer these questions, we asked 442 executives to reflect on which experiences most advanced their professional development and had the greatest impact on making them better leaders.
Their responses were genuine. They revealed embarrassing stories, abject fiascoes, thoughtless gaffes, youthful mistakes, and careless decisions — but also smart decisions, soaring accomplishments, and meaningful interactions. By and large, their reflections were self-effacing and deeply felt.
We processed these reflections through the text analysis program NVivo , a powerful software used in fields like sociology and education, to detect sentimental themes among the stories submitted. We also asked doctoral students to code the stories according to sentiment. As a final step, management professors reviewed the accuracy of that coding.
Three distinct themes arose through our analysis: surprise, frustration, and failure. Reflections that involved one or more or of these sentiments proved to be the most valuable in helping our leaders learn and grow in their careers.
What did it mean to be surprised, frustrated, and fail in this context?
Many things surprise us, but in our study, most leaders were moved by moments that greatly derailed their expectations. One participant expressed “shock” that a well-respected, even-keeled colleague blew their stack about a minor issue. Another was surprised when a reasonable request was rejected. And yet another claimed “shock” when the market share of a proven service dropped.
Their experiences reflected this fundamental truth: As humans, we tend to naively hypothesize about what will happen next based on what has already occurred. As a part of our cognitive nature, we use logic and reason to “describe, explain, predict, and control ” in order to project some semblance of power over what goes on in our lives.
When we are mistaken, we are surprised — and mistakes, lapses in judgements, and wrongful assumptions are worth our reflection.
This brings me to the next sentiment: failure. While surprise can be kept internal, many of participants associated failure with making a mistake visible to the masses. One leader shared a memory of how being too involved in “organizational politics” led a program he was leading to fail. He lamented: “I messed up, big. I focused on the idea, but not the details. I had to own it. It was painful, but I never made that mistake again.”
Failure, then, is often behavioral, and it manifests as a mistake. The good news is that we all make mistakes. Mistakes provide raw evidence of what we should not do in the future. Mistakes allow us to learn by “negative example” otherwise known as “ errorful learning .” Much has been written about the value of failure as a learning experience because it’s temporary. Naturally, we can’t learn if we don’t take the time to stop and intentionally reflect.
Frustration occurs when our thoughtful analysis is criticized. Or someone parks in our space, our flight is delayed, we get stuck in traffic, or our loved one is late picking us up. The leaders we studied conveyed frustration with things like internal delays that threatened product launches, budget inequities, and corporate offices that didn’t seem to understand field realities.
Moments when our leaders felt frustration became growth opportunities upon reflection. That is, opportunities for improvement, change, innovation, and even to develop other soft skills like communication, problem-solving, and patience.
It’s important to understand that, at the root of frustration, lies our goals, or the objects of our ambitions and efforts. Goals reflect our values, and our values make up the compass that keeps us connected to our higher purpose in life and at work. We’re frustrated when our goals are thwarted and we’re not able to get what we want, but pushing through that frustration and finding other ways to cope and move forward results in our growth.
Building a Weekly Practice
Surprise, frustration, and failure. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Head, heart, and hands . These parts of you are constantly in motion and if you don’t give them time to rest, they will surely fatigue . Like a muscle, your mind needs reflection to reenergize and grow stronger.
Here are a few simple practices to get you started on building a regular habit of reflection.
1) Keep a journal.
Whenever you are surprised, frustrated, or fail, pause and note the feeling. As soon as you are able, jot down what happened in enough detail to recall the instance in as much accuracy as possible. Note the feelings in your body — a sour stomach, a hot head, an impulse to cry — as well as any immediate thoughts that may be racing through your mind.
Try to identify the why behind the emotion. What about the event triggered these feelings in you? Were your expectations derailed? Did things not go your way? Did you make a mistake?
2) Set an hour aside each week to review your notes.
Don’t skip it. Block out the time on your calendar in order to avoid other disturbances.
You can prepare yourself for this review by setting realistic expectations: It’s going to be rigorous and honest. It may even be painful to examine your shortcomings, but also know you can’t get better until you know what to get better at.
3) Don’t just re-read your journal entry.
Add to it. In retrospect, are there things about the situation that you are able to see differently? Press yourself. What went wrong? Were your initial observations correct or do they reveal something else that may have been going on, something you couldn’t see in the heat of the moment? Try to think of yourself as neutral observer.
Now the question becomes: How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again? In the case of failure, you may find there is a mistake you can learn from. In the case of surprise, you may discover that you need to recalibrate unrealistic expectations. In the case of frustration, you may figure out that you need to get better at adapting to the unexpected.
Go easy on yourself. Reflection — well and truly done — is ego-bruising. Always remember that excellence is achieved by stumbling, standing up, dusting yourself off, then stumbling again. If you study those stumbles, you’re much less likely to fall down in the future.
Pro tip: If you are looking for more resources, here are a few popular and proven reflections toolkits that may help guide your reflection practice.
- Gibbs Reflective Cycle explores six stages of an experience: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusions, and action plan.
- What? So what? Now what? are three reflective stages of thinking about an experience, its implications, and what it means for the future.
- Integrated Reflection Cycle has four steps: the experience, your actions, relevant theory, and preparation for the future.
- The 5R Framework of Reflection, Reporting, Responding, Relating, Reasoning, and Reconstructing is yet another toolkit.
Reflection is executive functioning. True courageous reflection galvanizes your willpower. It promotes continuous self-awareness, empowers you, ensures you are valued, and gives you the self-awareness you need to quicken achieving your potential.
If you, as a young professional, want to ascend, then do what those who are successful do. Reflect on surprise, frustration, and failure. Make it part of your life.
It will pay off.
- James R. Bailey is professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership at George Washington University. The author of five books and more than 50 academic papers, he is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, The Hill, Fortune, Forbes, and Fast Company and appears on many national television and radio programs.
- Scheherazade Rehman is professor and Dean’s Professorial Fellow of International Finance. She is director of the European Union Research Center and former Director of World ExecMBA with Cybersecurity, has appeared in front of the U.S. House and Senate, and been a guest numerous times onPBS Newshour, the Colbert Report, BBC World News, CNBC, Voice of America, and C-Span.
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Young African Leaders Initiative
A guest post from Sadhana Hall , an instructor for the YALI Network Online Courses , including lessons on “ Networking to Get Ahead ,” “ Creating and Managing a Team ” and “ Setting and Achieving Goals .”
I am fortunate to reflect on leadership and management concepts regularly, but not because these ideas are necessarily “new.” Many leadership concepts may be simple, but they are not just “common sense”; if that were the case, why don’t we see them being practiced more frequently? In my experience, I’ve found that great leadership requires intentional reflection on key concepts; here are a few that are important to me.
Effective management and leadership begins with being self-aware . This simply means that you need to work hard to intimately understand your strengths and weaknesses, model ways in which your values are congruent with your behavior, and develop a culture of respect for yourself and for others on your team. Recently, a new employee said to me: “Although I already had a strong sense of my core values before joining this organization, working here has pushed me to practice a higher level of professionalism. Our organization’s culture doesn’t just teach leadership to our students, but expects faculty and staff to model what leadership actually looks like on a daily basis. We are responsible for an array of excellent courses, effective programs, and skill-building events, but the most personally rewarding aspect of my work is participating in an internal culture that is congruent with our external message.” Explicit and implicit in this employee’s observation is the way in which our team practices shared management and leadership with awareness and authenticity.
Consider also what integrity means to you as a manager or a leader and why it matters. Integrity has been defined and described in many ways, but there is one idea that has stuck with me: A person’s integrity is a matter of the value of his or her word, nothing more and nothing less. If you keep your word for every task, large or small, people will naturally trust you with more complex responsibilities. Responsibility and trust create credibility, which then makes the conditions ripe for leading people towards achieving common goals. This is how your organization and your role within it can grow. So consider developing a habit of keeping your word — to yourself and to others. I know from personal experience that this is not an easy thing to do all the time. If you break your word — to yourself or to another person — apologize and figure out a way to fix the problem you might have created by breaking your word.
Finally, as a leader, pay attention to self-care . Taking care of your team starts with taking care of yourself. Understand your limits and what you can reasonably accomplish in a finite period of time. Identify tasks only you can accomplish and delegate other tasks in ways that will engage your team members and encourage their development.
These are my reflections on self-awareness, integrity, and self-care. What do these concepts mean to you?
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Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Leadership Careers Dec 2, 2016
How self-reflection can make you a better leader, setting aside 15 minutes a day can help you prioritize, prepare, and build a stronger team.
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Harry M. Kraemer
Your company is expanding into China. Your most trusted team member put her notice in this morning. And your desk resembles a second-grade science experiment run amok.
As you frantically consider where to throw your attention, are you in the mood to reflect on what’s driving your behavior? To analyze your larger goals? To consider what got you into this situation and how you might avoid it in the future?
“The usual reaction is, ‘Well, I’ll just go faster,’” says Harry Kraemer , clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and former CEO of multibillion-dollar healthcare company Baxter International. But that’s mistaking activity for productivity. And productivity demands self-reflection.
Self-Reflection in Leadership
Kraemer would know. For thirty-seven years—ever since he was unexpectedly duped into attending a spiritual retreat with his future father-in-law—he has made a nightly ritual of self-reflection. “Every day,” he emphasizes. Stepping back from the fray is how Kraemer, once the manager of 52,000 employees, avoided “running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”
Instead of constant acceleration, Kraemer says, leadership demands periods of restraint and consideration, even—perhaps especially—during a crisis. Leaders must regularly turn off the noise and ask themselves what they stand for and what kind of an example they want to set.
“Self-reflection is not spending hours contemplating your navel,” Kraemer says. “No! It’s: What are my values, and what am I going to do about it? This is not some intellectual exercise. It’s all about self-improvement, being self-aware, knowing myself, and getting better.”
Kraemer offers three ways that periodic self-reflection can strengthen leadership, as well as some of his favorite prompts.
8 Daily Self-Examination Questions
- What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?
- What did I actually do today?
- What am I proud of?
- What am I not proud of?
- How did I lead people?
- How did I follow people?
- If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
- If I have tomorrow (and I am acutely aware that some day I won’t), based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life?
Adapted from Harrykraemer.org
Know Your Priorities—and Where You Fall Short
Anybody in a managerial position has two basic responsibilities: prioritize what must be done, and allocate resources to get those things done efficiently. “But how can you possibly prioritize or allocate if you haven’t figured out what really matters?” Kraemer asks.
Self-reflection allows leaders to understand what is important, and focus on what might be done differently.
Kraemer described an experience at Baxter where the company was focused on increasing its growth rate. Other firms were making acquisitions right and left, while Baxter was not. “So we stepped back,” says Kraemer, “and asked, if we want to grow externally, what are other companies doing that we aren’t?” It turned out that the companies that were growing successfully had diverted resources from their core operations to establish large business-development departments. Baxter at the time had a much smaller department. But until taking time to research and reflect on the matter, “we didn’t realize we needed a larger team of people who could fully dedicate themselves to this issue,” he says.
Of course, after priorities have been defined, it is important for action to follow. To prevent a gulf between word and deed, Kraemer writes out his self-reflection each night, creating a record of what he has done and what he says he will do. He also checks continuously with family, friends, and close colleagues to ensure he is holding himself accountable and “not living in some fantasy land.”
Members of the United States military are excellent role models for self-reflection in leadership, Kraemer says. They forecast and plan obsessively in order to do one thing—minimize surprise. “If the president of the United States calls and says, ‘I want an aircraft carrier in the Middle East,’ and the aircraft carrier gets there and all of a sudden it gets bombed, the military isn’t saying, ‘Oh, what are we going to do? We got bombed!’” he points out. “They’ve already thought that that might happen.” Likewise, while running Baxter, where he oversaw multiple chemical-processing and manufacturing plants around the world, “I wasn’t surprised if there was a fire in one of those plants or if something blew up,” he says. Quality, safety, and compliance standards are, of course, essential to minimizing the possibility of disaster. “But we were self-reflective enough to realize that it could happen. So, when it did happen, we weren’t confused,” he says. “We dealt with it.”
Of course, forecasting has its limits. For instance, COVID-19 has caught even the most self-aware leaders by surprise. But self-reflection need not mitigate only out-of-the-blue disasters; it also prepares leaders for more routine, but no less insidious disappointments. As head of a publicly traded company, for instance, Kraemer knew that not every quarterly performance was going to be positive. “To assume that performance is going to go up every single quarter—that’s not really logical. And by the way, when the drop does happen, what are you going to do about it?”
Preparation has the added benefit of reducing anxiety about the possibility of things going wrong, says Kraemer. “What keeps you up at night? I used to say, ‘I have a multibillion-dollar company…’ Now I say, ‘Nothing keeps me awake. If it takes me a while to go to sleep, I’ll just read another book.”
“If I’m going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I’m going to try to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection.”
Build Stronger Teams
Self-reflection’s effects go beyond the self, Kraemer points out: “If I don’t know myself, is it possible for me to lead myself? I doubt that. If I can’t lead myself, how could I possibly lead other people?”
Learn more from Harry Kraemer in the Kellogg Executive Education Enterprise Leadership Program .
Strong leaders, he says, not only practice self-reflection themselves; they also encourage their teams to do so. “I have a responsibility to develop every single person I touch,” says Kraemer. And of course, a self-reflective team is a team that has its priorities straight and arrives prepared to deal with any setbacks.
So if one of his employees or students is “bouncing around like a lunatic,” he schedules a meeting with him or her to establish the value of settling down for a moment, taking a breath, and considering what’s important. “If I’m going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I’m going to try to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection,” he says.
How can leaders get themselves, and their teams, practicing self-reflection? Kraemer does not prescribe a specific process; how a person reflects, he says, is a personal matter. (In this article, however, he shares some of his favorite prompts.)
But Kraemer is adamant that leaders—and leaders-to-be—carve self-reflection into their daily routine. It takes only 15 minutes, and can be done while taking a walk, gardening, or sipping a cup of coffee. “The reason many, many people have trouble balancing their lives is that they have not been self-reflective enough to figure out what they’re trying to balance,” he says. “You might say, ‘Boy, my spouse is really, really important to me.’ But do you spend time with her? Or do you assume you’re too busy? Is spending time with her a priority or isn’t it a priority?”
Still convinced you cannot fit self-reflection on your calendar ? That’s often an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable exercise, he says.
“There could be a pretty big difference between what you say is important and what you’re actually doing, and you may not want to confront that.”
Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations
About the Writer Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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