Resource Library Articles

Reflection as a Leadership Fundamental

Several years ago, I was speaking with a 43-year-old executive who had already survived two heart attacks. He was nervously chattering about how loaded he was with work, family, community commitments, and other “pressures.”

I asked him, “Do you ever take any time to quiet down and take a look at what is happening in your life?”‘

He said, “Every time I try to get quiet like that, I fall asleep!”

“What does that tell you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. He reminded me of a fly buzzing furiously against a window, located next to an open door. Freedom is at hand if only he would STOP, back up, get quiet, and observe.

What is reflection?

Reflection, broadly defined here, is stepping back from the window and observing: noting what is happening, looking for patterns, and looking for meaning. It’s a thought process, an emotional process, and an intuitive process all at once. Reflection as I use it here is more active than meditation or contemplation; and it is deeper and richer than “thinking about something.” It is a way to capture meaning, clarity, and direction in life.

Why reflect?

John Shea, a master storyteller and keen observer of our culture, has noted that as Americans, we tend to be “experience rich and wisdom poor.” Reflecting on experience, he contends, is the path to wisdom. We do not learn well from our own story because we are “too busy” to read it. A leader who doesn’t reflect misses the lessons of the most informative, insightful, tuition-free school one could ever attend. Reflection provides the time and space for experience to surface. It’s the quiet crucible in which the “unreal” falls away and the “real” crystallizes. It is where I reconnect with who I am and what I am about. It was during reflection time when I first identified what Stephen Covey defined as a Personal Mission Statement. And it is during my ongoing reflection that I now examine life in light of that Statement. It’s where I confront my powerlessness, and reclaim power. It’s where the muddled morass takes shape, and differentiates. Where questions, internalized and “sat with,” evolve into directions. Where business and personal conundrums yield to elegant resolution.

Understanding resistance

Too easily, though, reflection becomes a “should,” much like regular exercise or a consistently healthy diet. Though I’ve rarely heard anyone deny that quality reflection is essential to a well-balanced life, many are masterful at avoiding it, using these common arguments:
• My phone never stops ringing!
• There’s no place in my (home/office) that’s quiet or private enough!
• Someone always wants my attention!
• It’s a luxury I can’t afford right now.
• Try taking reflection time with a two-year-old!
• Right now I need sleep more than quiet time.
• Have you seen my calendar lately?
• By the time I get to it, I’m too exhausted!

Actually, I’ve found it more helpful to assess the underlying reasons for not reflecting. Here are a few I’ve identified in myself:
• I may surface dreams and hopes that will not go away.
• I’m afraid of what I’ll find.
• It’s not very entertaining and I like to be entertained.
• I fear feeling the pain that may be hidden inside me.
• I’m hesitant to touch the love that I know is inside me.
• I may have to acknowledge my inadequacies and shortcomings.
• I’m ashamed and don’t want to deal with it.
• I may discover that I’m taking people for granted.
• I’m wrong and don’t want to admit it.
• I may have to acknowledge that I’m out of control.
• I may discover that I need help.

Caught up in such limited thinking or emotion, I might opt for action over reflection, doing over being. It’s tempting to ignore the decisive historical evidence in my life:
• I have often suffered the consequences of a failure to reflect.
• I have never been diminished by reflection.
(These realizations arose in reflection!)

What are the benefits?

Here are some benefits realized through commitment to reflection time:
• The freedom that comes from dealing more directly with reality. (Denial, after all, takes energy.)
• Clarity about what’s not working well so I can move on to doing something about it.
• Centeredness, serenity, and peace.
• Clarity regarding what I want, believe, fear, and value.
• Increased ability and credibility to coach others about reflection.
• Less defensiveness and less reactivity to the questions or observations of others.
• The discovery of a new insight.
• A realization of what’s really important in my life.
• Increased ability to choose more wisely — to make more informed choices.
• The relief that comes with illumination.

Reflection strategies for business leaders:

On-the-spot/in-the-moment reflection
• Take ten seconds to sit up straight and breathe deeply. This can be done, without drawing attention to it, in the middle of a meeting. It can provide fresh perspective, a kind of cleansing.
• Ask yourself:
Is this what I want to be doing now?
Is this what I need to be doing now?
What’s happening inside — emotions, gut?
What is important to me here?
• Stand up and move around. Change your physical relationship with your work or the person/people involved. What do you see differently?
• Re-read your Personal Mission Statement.

Routine/regular reflection
• Carve out a committed time/place for daily reflection – for example, early morning, a spot on the way to work, or a particular room and chair.
• Journal — write about what you are experiencing, what questions arise in you, what incidents from the day draw your attention. Ask yourself: “What can I learn from my experience of life today?”
• Expand on the on-the-spot ideas above.
• Ask yourself some simple reflective questions like:
When did I feel most energized today?
When did I feel energy draining out of me?
What was today’s high point?
What was today’s low point?
What am I most grateful for in the day?
What am I angry or resentful about?

Occasional reflection
• Take a significant period of time (half-day, full-day, extended weekend, etc.) for reflection only — no other “doing” agenda. Identify a place where you can ensure quiet and privacy. Local retreat houses often have accommodations for individuals seeking a reflective atmosphere.
• Conduct a “culture check” with your team which includes reflection time for participants.
• Check out retreats sponsored by religious or spiritual groups.
• Consider some spiritual/reflective reading as a prompter to extended reflection.


This article originally appeared in Great Lakes Leadership Group’s “Leader’s Edge”. Reprinted with permission.

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