Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. —Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Do leaders in Malaysia take time to reflect on who they are and whether they are making a positive difference in this world? Some take reflection seriously and make time to think about these questions.
However, perhaps the majority of leaders either don’t have or don’t make time. Perhaps some believe that taking time out to reflect is unproductive or a low priority.
What is the value of reflection? Is it going to make you a better leader? The answer to that question, according to many practitioners and researchers, is a resounding yes!
Leaders in their fields, such as author J. K. Rowling, biographer Walter Issacson and psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung always made sure that they took time out from their busy schedules to engage in deep reflection, which heavily contributed to their success.
Even very busy leaders like the Governor of California Jerry Brown and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan say that
disciplined periods of silence are important for their success.
So what is reflection?
Reflection involves stepping out of the hustle and bustle of life so we can look back on it from a more restful place. We all engage in reflection from time to time, even though we may not recognise it or name it as such.
When we look back on significant experiences in our lives and wonder how they have affected us, this is a form of reflection. When we recall the influential people who have made an impact on our lives in profound ways, such as grandparents, parents, teachers or friends, this is also reflection. It’s a natural human instinct.
As leaders, reflection needs to be a little more purposeful. Firstly, leaders reflect to get a better understanding of their past actions in order to create a better future.
The key questions for them might include: “What have I done that has worked well?” and “What will I do
differently next time?”
Research has shown that thinking through these key questions helps to improve performance as well as strengthen emotional commitment to leadership tasks.
These are not just improvements compared with their previous performance, but improvements compared with other leaders who do not reflect – taking the time to do so will set apart high performing leaders from the rest.
Secondly, leaders reflect at a deeper level to ensure alignment between what they do and who they are as people. Psychologists including Abraham Maslow have argued that if there is a good match between our values and the work we do, this is the highest form of motivation.
You will know when this happens because you are no longer working for just the money. Your motivation for work comes from a deeper place and you also form deep relationships with others who will come on the journey with you.
When you get to this point, your reflection will address different types of questions, such as: “Is what I am doing consistent with my values?” and “What is the higher purpose for what I am doing?”
Leaders should frequently ask these questions to ensure that they have the strongest possible motivation for their work.
When you ask these questions, it should not matter how lofty or humble your work is, and also it does not matter if you get the ‘right’ answers to these questions.
So, how do you reflect?
There are a few key steps to follow if you want to reap the benefits of reflection. Firstly, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for a while. This means getting away from phones, computers and people who can interrupt your session.
The place could be in your office, a park or simply in your car, wherever you feel quietest and most at peace. Give yourself 10 minutes if you are a beginner.
As this becomes a routine in your life, you can build your reflection time up to 30 minutes per session. Consider it like exercise: you should try and reflect several times a week, and you’ll get better the more practice you have.
When you are sitting comfortably in a quiet place, close your eyes and notice your breathing. Stay focused on your breathing for a few minutes, progressively slow it down while taking really deep breaths.
You might find that your mind will wander. When that happens, gently bring your mind back to your breathing. This might take a few attempts, but persevere and you will get better at it.
After a few moments of breathing, move into a relaxed position. You can do this by progressively relaxing muscle groups starting at your feet and working all the way up to your head.
Spend a few moments with each muscle group, relaxing them more and more as you breathe out. Start with your feet, then calf muscles, thigh muscles, stomach and chest muscles, back muscles, shoulders, followed by arms and fingers and finally neck and facial muscles.
When you are completely relaxed, turn your mind to the reflection questions. If you want to learn from your past experiences and would like to improve your leadership practice, then the questions you could be asking are:
- What have I done that has worked well?
- What will I do differently the next time?
If you want to reflect on your deeper leadership journey then your questions could be:
- Is what I am doing consistent with my values?
- What is the higher purpose for what I am doing?
These questions are only suggestions and you may wish to generate your own. It is also helpful to look at the issues from different perspectives.
Spend a few moments thinking about these questions. Then open your eyes and write down your thoughts in a note book.
If actions you need to take emerge from the reflection, then write them down as well. Record a date for each entry so you can track the outcomes of your reflections. From time to time go back over the notes to review your progress.
A call to action!
Start today! Plan your first reflection session. Reflection time is a small price to pay if wisdom is the reward.
Ernest is a psychologist specialising in global leadership. He engages leaders to understand themselves more deeply and to make a positive contribution to the world. He believes the hierarchical style of leadership found in Malaysia and many parts of the world is no longer fit for purpose. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org