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A Leaders Greatest Tool - A Time of Reflection

When people find out I’m a business advisor / executive coach, they often ask who my toughest clients are. Inexperienced leaders? Senior leaders who think they know everything? Leaders who bully and belittle others? Leaders who shirk responsibility?

Sure, I have some of these types of clients. But, the hardest leaders to advise and coach are those who won’t take the time to reflect — particularly leaders who won’t reflect on themselves.

At its simplest, reflection is about careful thought and self-evaluation. But the kind of reflection that is really valuable to leaders is more subtle than that. The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning and growing. Reflection gives our brain an opportunity to pause amidst all the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible versions, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets, future direction and most importantly actions. For leaders, this time of reflection is crucial to your ongoing growth and development.

Research has shown that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect. A study of commuters found a similar result when those who were prompted to use their commute time to think about and plan for their day were happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.

So, if reflection is so helpful, why don’t many leaders do it?  It’s because leaders often:

Don’t like the process of reflection - Reflection requires leaders to do a number of things they typically don’t like to do, slow down, adopt a mindset of not knowing and curiosity, tolerate messiness and inefficiency, and take personal responsibility. The process can lead to valuable insights and even breakthroughs — and it can also lead to feelings of discomfort, vulnerability, defensiveness, and irritation.

Don’t like the results of reflection - When a leader takes time to reflect, they typically see ways they were effective as well as things they could have done better. Most leaders quickly dismiss the noted strengths and dislikes, the noted weaknesses. Some become so defensive in the process that they don’t learn anything, so the results are not helpful.

Have a bias towards action which is contrary to reflection - Like soccer goalies, many leaders have a bias toward action. A study of professional soccer goalies defending penalty kicks found that goalies who stay in the center of the goal, instead of lunging left or right, have a 33% chance of stopping the goal, and yet these goalies only stayed in the center 6% of the time. The goalies just feel better when they “do something.”  The same is true of many leaders. Reflection can feel like staying in the center of the goal and missing the action.

Can’t see a ROI for their time spent reflecting - From early roles, leaders are taught to invest where they can generate a positive ROI — results that indicate the contribution of time, talent or money paid off.  Sometimes it’s hard to see an immediate ROI on reflection — particularly when compared with other uses of a leader’s time.

If you have found yourself making these same excuses, you can become more reflective by practicing a few simple steps.

Identify some important questions - Reflection starts by asking ourselves some tough questions. To reference a book title of my mentor “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.” Even harder “Good Leaders Ask Themselves Great Questions.”  As hard as it may be this is where you need to start. 

Here are some examples of questions to ask yourself to start your time of reflection. 

  • What are you avoiding or afraid of?

  • What challenges are you struggling with at the moment?

  • What drives your passion?

  • Where are you sabotaging yourself?

  • What opportunities do you have right now that you need to capitalize on?

  • Who are you most grateful for?

  • What are you learning and accepting of yourself at this present time?

  • What are you willing to commit to from this time of learning?

  • After your time of reflection, who are you called to be, what work are you called to do?

  • What is the inspiration of your life?

  • What has brought you joy and excitement this last year?

  • Where is your life out of balance?

  • What excuse do you continually use for not meeting your goals?

  • Will your choices for 2020 move you forward or keep you stuck?

  • What story is holding you back?

  • What relationships do you value the most and why?

  • Which of your strengths become a limitation when you exercise it too much?

  • What behaviors do you need to change to help you accomplish your goals?

  • How are you helping your colleagues achieve their goals?

  • How are you not helping or even hindering their progress?

  • What is next for you?

Select a reflection process that you prefer the most - Many people reflect through writing in a journal.  If that sounds terrible but talking with a colleague or a coach sounds better, consider that.  As long as you’re reflecting and not just chatting about the latest sporting event or complaining about a colleague, your approach is up to you.  You can sit, walk, bike, or stand, alone or with a partner, writing, talking, or thinking.

Schedule time - Most leaders are driven by their calendars. So, schedule your reflection time and then commit to keep it. And if you find yourself trying to skip it or avoid it, reflect on that! Ask yourself “are you controlling your schedule or is your schedule controlling you?”

Start small - If an hour of reflection seems like too much, try 10 minutes.  Set yourself up to make progress, even if it feels small.

Just do it - Go back to your list of questions and explore them. Be still. Think. Consider multiple perspectives. Look at the opposite of what you initially believe. Brainstorm. You don’t have to like or agree with all of your thoughts — just think and to examine your thinking and learn from your time of reflection. 

Ask for help - For most leaders, a lack of desire, time, experience, or skill can get in the way of reflection.  Consider working with a business advisor or coach to help you make the time, listen carefully, be a thought partner, and have them help you to be accountable.

Despite the challenges to find time to reflect, the impact is clear. As Peter Drucker said: 

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.”

Arthur M. May AIA Assoc. President


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