“In the journey of leadership, self-reflection is the fuel that propels personal growth. It illuminates blind spots and empowers leaders to make wiser choices.”
– Peter Senge
In today’s fast-paced corporate world, it’s easy to get caught up in the merry-go-round. From the strategising, the endless to-do lists and the interminable meetings to the whirlwind of decision-making and the relentless pursuit of huge goals, it feels like there’s never enough time. But what if I told you that one of the most powerful leadership tools at your disposal isn’t constant action, but a quiet and introspective practice? That taking the time to pause and look back can be groundbreaking for your professional (and personal) growth? If you’re ready to embark on a transformative journey, stick around and I’ll show you how to harness the incredible power of self-reflection.
Empathy, emotional intelligence, connection, adaptability, integrity, communication, compassion. They’re all skills that no AI can replace, intrinsic skills that make us human. They’ve also become increasingly important in the workplace, differentiating exceptional leaders from the pack. And one skill in particular – self-reflection – is arguably the most valuable of them all.
History is brimming with examples of leaders who have credited self-reflection with their ability to lead, inspire change and overcome challenges. Former US president Barack Obama held frequent ‘reflection sessions’; Ruth Bader Ginsburg was known for retreating to her private quarters to reflect on the day’s events; Mahatma Gandhi regularly practiced introspection to examine his own actions and motivations; Nelson Mandela spent much of his 27-year imprisonment reflecting on his beliefs and values.
But what does self-reflection really mean… and why is it so important?
Self-reflection is more than just a quick glance in the rear-view mirror, or a fleeting moment of introspection. It’s a deliberate practice that the Oxford Dictionary defines as “serious thought about your own character and actions”.
It’s the process of analysing your decisions and behaviours to better understand who you are and why you think and act the way you do. It’s about exploring your thoughts, behaviours and emotions with interest and curiosity, rather than judgement and condemnation (no room for your inner critic here!).
Self-reflection empowers you to uncover patterns and learn from past experiences, whether they be roaring successes or humbling setbacks, and then use those learnings to create positive change. In John C. Maxwell’s words, “Reflective thinking turns experience into insight.”
How self-reflection can improve your leadership
If you want to be a better leader, self-reflection is hands-down one of the best tools in your leadership toolbox. Why? For starters, it’ll give you:
Increased self-awareness: You’ll gain a much deeper understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs. By honestly examining your own thoughts, emotions and behaviours, you’ll be able to identify where you’ve excelled as well as areas for improvement, and make conscious choices about how you lead, respond to challenges and interact with your team.
Improved emotional intelligence: You’ll develop your ability to recognise, understand and manage your own emotions, as well as empathising with others. Incredibly helpful when it comes to navigating complex interpersonal dynamics, building strong relationships and resolving team conflicts. It comes as no surprise that World Economic Forum research found that 90% of top performers are high in emotional intelligence!
Enhanced decision making: By reflecting on past decisions and outcomes, examining what worked well and what didn’t, you’ll learn from your experiences. You’ll also develop critical thinking skills, be better able to consider multiple perspectives and weigh potential risks and benefits – all of which help you make better, more informed decisions.
Continuous growth and learning: Self-reflection is all about embracing a growth mindset. By identifying areas for improvement, actively seeking out feedback and pursuing opportunities for skill development, you’ll stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing world.
Authentic leadership: By understanding yourself more deeply, you’ll be able to lead with authenticity, aligning your actions with your values and beliefs. Not only does this gain the trust and respect of your team, it creates a positive and inclusive culture that inspires others to follow your lead.
How to turn self-reflection into a super-power
Leaders often come to me because they believe their team isn’t working. They’re not getting the results expected of them, or behaving the way they should. They ask me ‘why’ it’s happening and how they can fix it.
But most of the time the real issue doesn’t lie directly with their team. The real problem is usually staring them right in the face – literally. Sometimes it takes a long look in the mirror for leaders to be able to see the root cause, which is how their own actions are impacting those around them. To help them do that, there’s a coaching technique I use that enables them to burrow deeper into their reflections on their behaviour and approach – it’s a technique called ‘reflective inquiry’, and it turns self-reflection into a super-power.
‘Reflective inquiry’, developed in 1910 by psychologist John Dewey (detailed in his classic book, How We Think), goes beyond a simple question-and-answer session – it aims to provoke insight, rather than simply answer questions. In Dewey’s words, “reflective inquiry enables us to climb a tree in our minds. We gain a broader standpoint to see connections and faults in thinking to better assess what to do next.”
Marsha Reynolds, coach and author of ‘Coach the Person Not the Problem’, believes that reflective inquiry helps people “discern logic, evaluate their beliefs, and clarify fears and desires affecting their choices” – and when those thoughts are rearranged and expanded, solutions start to emerge.
I love it for the fact that it gets leaders to really think about their thinking – consider their situation in a deeper way, examine underlying biases and develop new perspectives. It empowers them to make better decisions and cultivate a better understanding of themselves, their team and their business.
The good news is, you can practice this technique on your own – you don’t need me (though I’m always happy to help!).
To develop the kind of deep, critical thinking that reflective inquiry promotes, there are four powerful questions you need to ask yourself. And ‘Why?’ isn’t one of them. These questions will help you stay objective, gain deeper insights, develop a stronger sense of self-awareness, and stay focused on converting your experiences into actionable insights.
So let’s give it a go.
1. What is the experience I had?
This question brings awareness to the specific details and elements of your experience. It helps you observe and describe what happened without judgment or interpretation. It helps you pay attention to the facts, noticing and describing the details of your experience, just as they are.
“I was feeling really flat, unmotivated and despondent. I had zero energy to start work. What I call the ‘no workies’. But I also had a lot to achieve that day and I needed to fire up and get into ‘action mode’.”
2. What meaning can I make of this?
By exploring the meaning you give to your experience, you’ll gain valuable insight into how your underlying perceptions, beliefs and biases shape the way you see things. Examining the lens through which you view the world really helps you recognise and challenge any limiting beliefs or biases that may be shaping your perceptions – you start to own your reality.
“I was struggling to be okay with feeling flat and was trying to force myself into action. I was really torn between sulking and firing up. It helped to recognise that feeling unmotivated is a natural part of being human, but it doesn’t have to affect my productivity – my energy levels and motivation fluctuate, and sometimes it just takes a more conscious effort to get into the zone.”
3. How does it make me think, feel, act?
This question is all about understanding how your experience impacts your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. By recognising patterns, you can gain clarity on how your experiences shape your perceptions and actions – and these insights can help you change the way you deal with situations in the future.
“Giving myself permission to sulk for a moment was refreshing, I usually give myself a hard talking to. But I let myself give voice to the ‘flat’ part of me. Then I actually made space for two conflicting parts of me, without judging them as right or wrong. I found that I sort of let go of the sulkiness much quicker instead of resisting it or pushing it down. I also wrote out my values and thought about how I could connect with them for the day ahead, I used my partnership value to get me through my to-do list.”
4. What did I learn and can apply next time?
This question focuses on extracting lessons and insights from your experience. It encourages you to reflect on what you’ve learned and consider how you can apply this knowledge in the future. It’s classic ‘growth mindset’ – identifying key takeaways to improve your decision-making, helping you identify specific actions or strategies that will enhance your ability to navigate future challenges.
“It’s okay to be flat sometimes, and rather than hating that part of me I can partner with it. I can also have different parts of me activated at once even if it feels conflicting and messy, and that I don’t have to be in ‘action’ mode to be productive. I have the power to change my mindset, regardless of what state of mind I start in.”
Make it a habit
In the wise words of personal development guru Jim Rohn, “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” And so it is with self-reflection – it can only work its magic if you make it part of your routine.
Whether it’s every day, every week or every month, block off time to ask yourself the four reflective inquiry questions. Eventually the practice will become habitual and you’ll find yourself incorporating it into your routine without any prompting – but until then, put it in the diary!
Try it with your team
Now that you know the secret to supercharging the power of self-reflection, you can try it out on your team – just switch out the ‘I’ for a ‘we’. Challenge them to break through their underlying beliefs, assumptions and biases by asking them those four powerful questions next time you’re examining a work situation. Not only will their fresh outlook greatly benefit the business, it will do wonders for their personal growth and development too. And isn’t that the heart of true leadership?
Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” It’s time to do better. Step off that crazy merry-go-round, take a deep breath and embrace the incredible power of self-reflection. Supercharge it with reflective inquiry and you’ll unlock insights that turn experience into wisdom, and self-reflection into a superpower. Now that’s even better.
If you’d like some help integrating reflective inquiry into your leadership toolkit, check out my Recalibrate Self-Paced Coaching Program. Not only will you learn how to refine your ability to self-reflect, you’ll also learn other life-long skills like challenging limiting beliefs and negative thinking, as well as value-setting and taking action to achieve your goals. You can download an Info Pack for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!