Career Guide

A humbling practice

How self-reflection lies at the heart of effective leadership

Recently, I was asked an interesting question: if I could acknowledge just one leadership quality that I believe is guaranteed to remain constant, what would it be?

Just one? Wow, thatís tough. There are so many qualities that are necessary for great leadership Ė 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 Ė and one that often sees leaders break out into a sweat whenever they embrace it.

Others still prefer to avoid it altogether. Itís something that sounds great, and most leaders will say they do it, but it can be quite a painful process.

Iím talking, of course, about self-reflection.

If I could pick just one quality that is guaranteed to remain constant throughout my own leadership journey, that would be my choice.

Why self-reflection?

Because everything begins with knowing what youíre doing, why youíre doing it, and how youíre doing it.

Leaders who donít take time to reflect regularly on themselves and where theyíre 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 itís a tough process as it makes you take an honest look at yourself Ė 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, letís face it, none of us like to admit when weíre 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 more 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 didnít 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 were 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 full control over yourself.

In other words, any goal or success you want to achieve Ė whether itís a solo or team effort Ė has to start with you. Everything else is consequential to how you are as a leader.

Some leaders Iíve spoken to on the subject have expressed their reluctance towards self-reflection, while others have admitted theyíre not quite sure what it entails.

What is self-reflection?

It is about asking yourself deliberate questions that are designed to give insights into how you work: what you do well, and what needs improving.

Itís also about being aware of making justifications or rationalisations.

In order for it to be effective, self-reflection has to be brutally honest.

Thatís not to say that you beat yourself up, but you donít 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, itís easy to get caught up in so many considerations that you begin to lose sight of what your values are and why youíre 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 whatís going on around you.

2. Am I allowing the things I canít 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 weíre trying to do.

We use up so much mental energy in focusing on what we canít influence, rather than concentrating on what we can do to prepare in the best way possible.

3. am I making time for those closest to me?

If I had a dollar for every time a respected leader has pointed out the importance of this question to me over the years, my piggy bank would be overflowing.

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 the things that truly matter.

4. Am I achieving my goals?

You can row the boat harder, but if youíre headed in the wrong direction, youíll 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 doesnít point to failed leadership.

Rather, it shows true leadership through the strength and courage to change direction, no matter how far youíve travelled in the other direction.

Bringing it all together

With just these four questions, itís clear why some leaders can find the process of self-reflection to be an uncomfortable one.

However, itís better to reach your destination along a bumpy road than to arrive smoothly at a place you didnít intend to be.

Thatís why, for me, self-reflection is the cornerstone of effective leadership.

- 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.

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