In order to be a true leader, rather than just act like one, it is vital to form a habit of daily reflection. This includes reflecting on your purpose, why you do things. As well as your values, how you do things. This not only builds self-awareness, but also boosts productivity and focus.
By reflection, I don’t simply mean thinking. That’s part of it, but it’s about going deeper to a point of reflexivity. Reflexivity is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: the fact of someone being able to examine his or her own feelings, reactions, and motives (= reasons for acting) and how these influence what he or she does or thinks in a situation.1
I want to start off by saying that this is not a “soft” practice. In fact, it’s some of the hardest work you’ll likely do. It goes beyond internal monologue to a constant questioning of attitudes, assumptions, habits and biases.
“Reflective practice can give strategies to bring things out into the open and frame appropriate and searching questions never asked before,” explains academic and author, Dr Gillie Bolton, in her book Reflective Practice.2
“It can provide relatively safe and confidential ways to explore and express experiences, otherwise difficult or impossible to communicate. It can challenge assumptions, ideological illusions, damaging social and cultural biases, inequalities and it questions personal behaviours that perhaps silence voices of others, or otherwise marginalise them.”
This means entering a practice of continual learning, pushing ourselves beyond what is comfortable. You’ll need to be vulnerable and take a “warts and all” inventory of what informs our thoughts and actions so that you can, as Simon Western, author of Leadership: A Critical Text, puts it, “act in good faith to create the good society”.3
“Good faith is not a cosy concept,” he says. “It means being able to scrutinise ourselves and acknowledge that we often act in bad faith and rationalise our actions. Leaders acting in good faith are able to acknowledge their lack and start to align purpose and action.”
If we don’t confront our internal drivers in this way, we’ll keep making the same mistakes. Alternatively, when we make reflection a priority, we not only improve our own work, but also that of entire teams and organisations.
Beyond this, we’ll be able to take a more systemic approach to leadership and make meaningful contributions to the wider world that boost people’s faith in business. This is something that is increasingly important to consumers, with 74% saying that a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important4.
“Creating a good society is not just an abstract, external aim or vague mission statement,” Western explains. “It means leaders trying to create the good society in every team or workplace situation they engage in.”
There are many routes to reflection and reflexivity, but what’s vital is that it becomes a regular practice. Just as you can’t expect to be a virtuoso pianist after playing just a few times, you can’t expect to build self-awareness and fuel transformation without commitment.
“Reflective practice and reflexivity are states of mind,” says Bolton. “An ongoing constituent of practice, not a technique, or curriculum element, but a pedagogical approach which should ‘pervade the curriculum’: the pearl grit in the oyster of practice and education. To be effective they need dynamic methods. The method of travel affects what happens along the way and the destination.”
Writing can be a particularly powerful method of travel. Bolton suggests taking six minutes to write freely every morning. Forget about spelling, grammar or form. Instead, just write whatever flows from your hand.
After that, she recommends spending another 20 minutes or so to write again, but this time with a bit more focus. Continue to disregard the technical aspects of what your writing, but do tell a story this time. Write down an experience that comes into your head, for example.
Once you’ve done that, and it’s all out of your head, then you can go back and reflect on what you’ve written. Correct it if you like, but the main thing is to give yourself the space to step back and consider your experience on a deeper level.
Questions to get you writing might be focused on a situation and how you tackled it. For example start with simple questions like:
These may seem simple, but it’s important to start with the basics and allow other questions to arrive and evolve over time. This will happen naturally as you become more proficient in your reflective practice. What’s vital is a commitment to regularity and consistency.
Once you’ve achieved this, you can talk to your peers or a coach about what you’ve uncovered. You’ll also be able to encourage your teams to do the same so that they too can become more reflexive in their daily lives and decision making. The end result? Increased dynamism and agility in both leadership style and organisational culture.