By Mike Stenhouse
Does taking the time to reflect make you a better leader? The science says absolutely, yes it does.
Reflection involves stepping back, away from the business, (and often people), and readdressing your actions from a more relaxed place, in a more relaxed state. Often when we’re making decisions, we’re in the heat of the moment - we may be stressed, emails are firing left and right, the phone is ringing and we’re being called into meetings. By taking the time to reflect, we as leaders enable ourselves to ascertain how our past actions can create a better future.
This is certainly not easy, but then again, neither is leadership. Many talk a good game but let’s face it, none of us like to admit when we’re wrong, or that we could have approached or done something better. Sometimes I find that leadership can often be romanticised. The reality is that it’s tough. Leaders are not only responsible for their own performance, they’re responsible for their team’s performance – that’s a lot to take on board.
There was a study carried out in 2018, that tested the notion of reflection and leaders. According to HBR, a sample of leaders reflected and wrote about three skills, achievements, qualities, capabilities, or traits that they liked about themselves. They also wrote about what they thought made them good leaders – a good reflective exercise. This exercise was alternated daily with another exercise where the leaders wrote about daily activities not specifically relevant to leadership. The leaders were then surveyed several times during the day to measure the results.
Interestingly, on days when leaders took a few minutes in the morning to reflect and write about aspects of themselves that make them good leaders, they subsequently felt less depleted and more engaged, and they reported having a positive impact on their followers. These effects lasted until the evening, suggesting that leaders felt more positive at home too on intervention days.
In another study, the performance of call centre agents were monitored and they 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 didn’t 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 less likely to burn out from stress.
How do you reflect?
So, if reflection is so important, how do you do it? For most of us, we wait until Christmas, when we finally get the time to step away from everyone and everything. But as noted above, it’s the daily reflection that really helps.
If your Outlook calendar is wall-to-wall meetings, ensure that you book yourself some “me-time”. This is the time of the day when you’re not to be disturbed. Try get some in a few times a week. For me, I like to walk to work whenever possible. It’s only a 20 minute walk to the office, but I use this time to reflect on my actions from the day before, keep the phone off and plan out how I’m going to tackle the big tasks of the day. This means that by the time I reach the office, I get to hit the ground running.
Some people I know like to keep a journal and reflect their thoughts, committing five minutes a day, writing what they’ve learnt and how they can do better. Regardless of your approach and when you make the time, ensure you ask yourself questions along the following lines:
- What am I trying to achieve?
- What have I done that has worked well?
- What will I do differently the next time?
- What am I grateful for?
This exercise alone can help align and hone your leadership skills. It’ll help you bring your best self to the day. As someone famous once said, it’s not “you look after me and I’ll look after you” it’s more “I’ll look after me so that I can bring my best self to look after you”.
If you want to reflect on your deeper leadership journey then your questions might include:
- Is what I am doing consistent with my values?
- What is the higher purpose for what I am doing?
In summary, taking the time to reflect doesn’t need to be a complicated exercise, but it does need to be undertaken. By doing so, you’re giving your self the time and space to improve, and bring your A game.