Another Friday arrives and ends. As you clear your desk, you think back to the week. You wonder, “Where did the time go?”. Even great time managers find themselves at the end of a busy week thinking about missed opportunities to help someone grow, provide a word of encouragement, or recognize someone’s good work. Developing a daily habit of leadership reflection helps leaders identify and learn from mistakes, make course adjustments, and anticipate threats and opportunities. Learn three simple ways to develop the habit of leadership reflection.
I first learned about the importance of reflecting as a leader during an executive development class provided by my employer. We were introduced to Aristotle’s idea that an unexamined life was not worth living. The instructor provided an exercise for each of us to create and use a daily leadership journal at the end of the work day. Several years later at the US Army Sergeants Major Academy (USASMA), I was introduced to the book, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. USASMA use the results of this program to demonstrate how hard it is for people to change habits. I read the book over a vacation and learned about meditation as a way to reduce stress and as a reflective habit for leaders. A third habit I learned was to take time daily and just sit in a quiet space doing nothing. Just think. You can seed these sessions with a short prompt like a poem or a short reading from a book like Patton’s One-Minute Lessons. As you begin practicing one or more of these reflective habits, you will find you are more mindful of sharing words of encouragement, using some time to recognize good work, and develop others into good leaders.
An important facet of reflective leadership is setting aside time each day to reflect. Try to make it the same time every day. Many successful people have a morning habit of reflecting shortly after waking but before the frenzy of the day begins (no single citation for this factual statement. After listening to many Tim Ferriss podcasts in which he interviews successful people with a standing question about their morning routines, reflecting, meditating, and journaling were cited by many as a ‘must-do’ activities). Others schedule it at the beginning of the work day or just before bed. The one constant is that successful leaders set aside and protect time to reflect.
There are many ways leaders can use a journal to reflect. Typically my time is used to memorialize some event that seemed important in my life, reflect on a topic, and express gratitude. This practice is my version of what I learned from others. Reflection takes time so set a realistic amount of time to be effective in your reflection. We write much slower than we think. That requires us to slow our thinking so we can write. The quiet mind is like a quiet information network, it works faster and better.
When you start to journal, you may find your mind is blank. There are a number of questions you may ask yourself to use as writing prompts. Examples include:
- What did I learn that makes me a better leader?
- What must I do achieve my goals or the goals of my organization?
- Who did I develop to become a better performer or future?
- What strengths did I use to make my relationships better?
- What am I feeling and why?
- What is going well and why?
These prompts are just examples. With practice, you will develop your own questions to answer as you write. You may find that some days you just want to open your journal and write what ever comes to mind without using prompts. Do what works so that you reflect on your leadership effects on others. The point of the activity is to help you develop as a leader. No one will be grading or critiquing your writing.
There are a variety of ways to learn to meditate. I am by no means an expert although I have practiced meditation for several years. Dr. Ornish introduces mediation in Chapter 9 of his book. Dan Harris has two good books and a smart phone app to learn to meditate. Two apps I regularly turn to are MyLife and Oak (I receive nothing except a feeling of satisfaction of helping others if you try either app).
Meditation helps leaders reflect by teaching them how to settle their mind currents, learning the practice of mindfulness, identifying emotions and how to detach from them, and by becoming mindful of the present moment. Leaders frequently deal with many problems. Only one of them can be a priority. Meditation helps leaders sort out thoughts like currents that run through rapids in a river. Your boat can only follow one path. Meditation helps leaders focus on one thing at a time making it easier to establish what is important now so they can communicate that to others. When others understand what the leader considers important, they can go forth and make decentralized decisions to support the leader’s intended direction.
A simple practice involves setting a timer and focusing on your breathing. Even 60 seconds is beneficial. Close your eyes and breath. Notice the position of your body; where the weight rests. Identify where you feel your breath the most. While breathing, relax each part of your body from head to toe. When a thought, sound, or sensation arises, acknowledge it, let it go, and return your attention to your breathing. It is okay if you realize during the exercise you have followed a thought rather than letting it go. Simply begin again. Two additions to this practice to help you focus are counting your breaths to 10 then starting over, or saying to yourself, “In” as your breath in and, “Out” as you breath out. You may do this with your eyes open. Practice before a meeting to develop focus.
Similar to meditation is quiet thinking. Instead of letting thoughts come and go, you focus on a thought and analyze it. You may sit quietly and wait for a thought to enter conscientiousness or start with an issue of concern. The issue may be something you have done and wish to evaluate your performance, or something about to happen and war-game options. As you reflect on the issue, you may find your mind wanders. Like meditation, simply let the extraneous thoughts go and simply return to your issue and begin again.
There is no right or wrong way to think about an issue. A formula you may use might be to start by identifying the problem. Look at the situation from the perspectives of others. This is not as easy as it sounds because we often project how we think others would view the problem, not how they actually do view the problem. Figure out if others have used possible solutions for similar problems. Remember, you are not your thoughts. Not all thoughts are good thoughts.
A little story on perspective. James Comey, former Director of the FBI, tells a story about how he once addressed a community group about crime. He said he wanted to help the community cultivate their neighborhood by weeding out the bad actors and planting seeds for growth. Word reached the President about his statements from angry community members. The President asked Comey if he realized that the bad actors he referenced in his chat were family members and neighbors of the group he addressed. The President asked Comey how he would feel if someone from the government came into his community and said he wanted to weed out his family members and friends. Weeding and seeding seems like a good idea but it does depend on who is weeding and who is being weeded. Comey said he carefully reflected on the words he wanted to use when addressing this group. He admits he failed to connect with his audience despite his best effort because he failed to truly see the other person’s perspective. Reflective leadership doesn’t guarantee 100% success (Comey, 2018).
Good leaders set time aside to reflect daily. Reflection allows them to process the lessons they learned, consider courses of actions for problems, how they are feeling, and identify important issues requiring their attention. There are a number of ways leaders can practice reflection. Three common and effective methods of reflection include journaling, mediating, and quiet thinking. Each allows leaders important alone time to learn and process. Block out time on your calendar to reflect and become a better leader.
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Brown, J. (2008) A leader’s guide to reflective practice. Trafford Publishing. Bloomington, ID.
Comey, J. (2018) A higher loyalty. Flatiron Books, New York, NY.
Horton-Deutsch, S. (2013). Thinking it through: The path to reflective leadership. https://www.myamericannurse.com/thinking-it-through-the-path-to-reflective-leadership/. Retrieved 3/12/21
Inam, H (2017). To be an effective leader keep a leadership journal. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hennainam/2017/04/02/to-be-an-effective-leader-keep-a-leadership-journal/?sh=7dc64dfc3b4d. Retrieved 3/14/21
Swaffield, S. & Warwick, P. (2004) Re-conceptualising reflective teaching in the 21st. Century: How do ‘Fast Track’ trainee teachers begin to link ideas about reflection and ideas about leadership?. British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester.
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(c) 2021 Christopher St. Cyr