Recently, I was asked an interesting question:
If I could have just one leadership quality that would be guaranteed to remain constant, what would it be?
Just one? Wow, that’s tough. There are so many qualities that are necessary for great leadership: passion, patience, confidence, perseverance, integrity, transparency, vision, the ability to execute ideas… and the list goes on.
But there is a leadership quality that I believe lies at the heart of effective leadership – and one that often sees leaders break out into a sweat whenever they embrace it. Others still prefer to avoid it altogether. It’s something that sounds great, and most leaders will say they do it, but it can be quite a painful process.
I’m talking, of course, about self-reflection. If I could pick just one quality that was guaranteed to remain constant throughout my own leadership journey, that would be my choice.
Related post: Why All Leaders Need To Practise Self-Reflection
Because everything begins with knowing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it. Leaders who don’t take time to reflect regularly on themselves and where they’re headed risk bumping into (avoidable) failure time and time again.
Self-reflection is a humbling, yet powerful technique that helps leaders (and anyone else) to improve their performance. But it’s a tough process as it makes you take an honest look at yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses, areas that require improvement, and how you should work to grow and develop in the coming weeks, months and years.
Many leaders talk a good game but let’s face it: none of us like to admit when we’re wrong, or that we could have approached or done something better.
Self-reflection is uncomfortable, but much like exercising, it offers countless benefits, and actually becomes easier and enjoyable the more we do it.
One study that monitored the performance of call centre agents found that those who spent 15 minutes reflecting at the end of the day on what lessons they could learn performed 23% better after 10 days than those who didn’t reflect. Another study of UK commuters found similar results. Those who used their commute to plan their day and think about how they were going to approach tasks experienced an increase in happiness, were more productive, and less likely to burn out from stress.
It calls for commitment
No matter how busy I find myself, I always eke out at least five minutes each day for self-reflection, and try to increase that time on weekends and holidays. It can seem like a passive exercise, self-indulgent almost.
However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest what many of the greatest leaders have always known: you can influence other people to behave in certain ways, but you only have control over yourself.
In other words, any goal or success you want to achieve – whether it’s a solo or team effort – has to start with you: everything else is consequential to how you are as a leader.
Some leaders I’ve spoken to on the subject have expressed their reluctance towards self-reflection, while others have admitted they’re not quite sure what it entails.
This might interest you: Start With The Man In The Mirror
What it requires
Self-reflection is about asking yourself deliberate questions that are designed to give insights into how you work: what you do well, and what needs improving. It’s also about being aware of making justifications or rationalisations.
In order for it to be effective, self-reflection has to be brutally honest. That’s not to say that you beat yourself up, but you don’t hide from uncomfortable truths, either.
Instead, you face up to any shortcomings you find, and make a commitment to yourself to resolve them.
Here are just some of the questions I ask myself during my sessions of self-reflection.
1. Am I being true to myself?
In the day-to-day running of a team or a business, it’s easy to get caught up in so many considerations that you begin to lose sight of what your values are and why you’re doing the work in the first place.
Our identities can become quickly lost in the paperwork, the meetings, the presentations and the networking events.
These are all necessary practicalities that come with being a leader, and this question helps realign yourself with what’s going on around you.
2. Am I allowing the things I can’t control to stress me out?
Any leader will know how tough it is at times to avoid worrying about everything. If we think about anything we do in life, it really all boils down to how well prepared we are.
Environments, factors and conditions outside our control all affect the eventual outcome of what we’re trying to do.
We use up so much mental energy in focusing on what we can’t influence, rather than concentrating on what we can do to prepare in the best way possible.
3. Do I make time for those closest to me?
If I had a dollar for every time a respected leader has pointed the importance of this question out to me over the years, I would have a full piggy bank.
What we do is important, and we should never forget that: but those closest to us are who we do it for. They are our inspiration and our constant reminders of what we value most. By making time for those closest to you, you keep yourself in touch with everything that truly matters.
4. Am I achieving the goals I have set for myself?
You can row the boat harder, but if you’re headed in the wrong direction, you’ll end up anywhere rather than somewhere. This is perhaps one of the most common pitfalls of leadership; we get so caught up in the doing that we forget about the destination.
Having to stop and change course where necessary doesn’t point to failed leadership; rather, it shows true leadership through the strength and courage to change direction, no matter how far you’ve travelled in the other direction.
Bringing it all together
With just these four questions, it’s clear why some leaders can find the process of self-reflection to be an uncomfortable process.
However, it’s better to reach your destination along a bumpy road than to arrive smoothly at a place you didn’t intend to be. That’s why, for me, self-reflection is the cornerstone of effective leadership.
What the Leaderonomics.com team says
The practice of self-relection shouldn’t just be limited to leaders and individuals only. As a nation, we too ought to get our act together to do a collective self-reflection on where we want to go in our next mile towards a sustainable and developed nation.
Do we know what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it?
What are some national initiatives that worked and which ones have failed us?
As Malaysia reached its 60th anniversary of Hari Kemerdekaan this year, it is only timely that our self-reflection be done as honest as possible, as a mature nation.
And instead of playing the blame game, we should all own up to our shortcomings and commit to resolving them towards a better Malaysia.
Happy 60th Merdeka!
Roshan has always been interested to learn what other people think about as they navigate their own journey, particularly with regard to their thought processes and the questions they ask themselves. If you’d like to share some of your thoughts with him, please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Article first appeared on LinkedIn.