Doug Guthrie, Dean of the School of Business at the George Washington University, recently published a blog entry titled “There Seems to be a Shortage of Introspection within Today’s Leaders.”  In it, he argues that for leaders to be effective the constant talk of a “bias for action” should be coupled with a strong “practice of introspection.”

What do you do with experiences that are unpredictable, unsettling or stressful? Do you take the time to really think about what you learned, or do you accept them as painful or necessary and move on as quickly as you can?  Most of us do take some moments for introspection – often while driving or in the shower. But when we are asked to reflect regularly, critically and intentionally, we find it difficult to find the time and uncomfortable to maintain the practice.  We’d rather just get on with that list of “things to do.”

Without disciplined introspection we waste the opportunity to recognize unhealthy personal patterns and we miss opportunities for personal and organizational breakthroughs.  After all, we experienced the trouble of living through these unstable, unsettling and stressful experiences, why not extract something helpful from them?  And for that matter, what are we learning from the work we experience as surprisingly successful or enjoyable?  Too often we live the experience, but overlook the lessons we could learn.

As it turns out, the only way you can lead more effectively is by making the extra effort to utilize and maximize experiences of all kinds. We can use them as guides to greater humility, deeper understanding and further awakening.

Practicing written reflection as a key vehicle for leader development has a long history. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Emperor of Rome from 161-180 could be considered to be one of the first “reflective practitioners.”   His book of meditations has been studied by generations of historians, philosophers and general readers. It still offers fascinating insights into leadership and the mind of an imperial ruler.

Various forms of reflection are the basic toolset enabling individual and collective effectiveness, so we must keep them in good shape and ready to hand. Rather than passively letting life wash over us, setting aside small periods of time to pause and reflect on our experiences can yield a great deal of insight.  For example, it’s interesting to notice that sometimes work is stressful and yet produces results conducive to our goals, and sometimes it doesn’t.  How does that happen? What was different? Fostering various forms of reflection through journaling, talking through a recent event with a colleague, focusing on what you might do differently if you could turn back the clock and thinking forward:  what are the results you want to achieve?  Regular mindfulness practices and physical activity such as walking, also produce the clarity of mind needed to reveal emerging truths and to open up to new possibilities for action.

Wise and thoughtful leaders do not hold their personal perspectives and biases too tightly.  They calmly and regularly take the time to critically reflect on experiences and assumptions drawing out the insights that can support their growth and effectiveness.

At their best, they see their leadership practice through four complementary lenses: 1. the lens of their autobiography – their formative life experiences; 2. the lens of others’ eyes (key people they respect and care about), 3. the lens of colleagues' experiences, and 4. the lens of theoretical, philosophical and research literature.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, was a deeply reflective leader, committed to a daily practice of introspection.  When he dedicated the Room of Quiet – a meditation room at the New York UN Headquarters, he wrote: “There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.”

How about stopping the action and entering your “center of stillness” more regularly? There are likely to be some surprising and powerful discoveries waiting for you there.

Dr. Richter is one of the lead faculty members for our programme Leading in the UN: A Deep Dive. Click here for more information.

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