The Reflective Leader: How Slowing Down is the Fastest Way to Increase Your Effectiveness
Life was incredibly busy – and incredibly frantic – but I was proud of all I was cramming in before the stroke of midnight. In reality, however, most days I was inefficient and ineffective. I often didn't listen well and had to ask others to repeat important things. I showed up five minutes late to team meetings more often than not and wasn't always sure of the focus before hustling in the door. One time I arrived at a presentation without my shoes and had to drive home to get them.
I was getting it done, but clearly not showing up as my best self.
Why high speed doesn't mean high performance
Sound familiar? Maybe you live like this or know someone who does. Maybe you've convinced yourself that your noble work ethic is your competitive advantage, and now you're pushing it to the extremes. You've jumped into the fast lane with no exits in sight.
But you've fooled yourself into believing high speed equals high performance, and that's typically not the case. Your body might be moving fast, but your brain is stuck in second gear. Here's why.
Your prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that manages planning, decision-making, problem-solving and self-control – doesn't operate very well when you're in a constant state of motion. That's because uncertainty and instability make you feel anxious, pressured and scattered, which triggers your limbic system. This is the part of your brain that manages the fight/flight/freeze survival response.
So instead of thinking your way through your day, you're operating in a threat state of mind. As a result, you don't think clearly. You're more likely to jump to conclusions and have difficulty solving problems. You're constantly on your guard, more apt to lose your temper and quick to misjudge others.
In short, you don't think, act or lead very effectively.
After too many years of living this way, I finally learned a better way. One that still allows me to get things done, but to do so by showing up in a more present, intentional and efficient way. All I had to do was slow down long enough to learn one of the most important skills practiced by all successful leaders – the art of reflection.
What is reflection?
Reflection is an age-old practice of looking inward to draw insight from your life's experiences. Experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning, which is why deliberate reflection on experience is essential. In reflective thought, you examine your underlying assumptions, beliefs, and ideas, while also taking a step back to look for patterns and identify meaningful lessons that can be applied to improve yourself.
Many of the world's great thinkers spent time in reflection, which likely helped them perform at a much higher level than most. Socrates encouraged others with the ancient Greek maxim to "know thyself," and he is credited with the inspirational quote: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Leonardo da Vinci journaled regularly to capture and reflect on his art, inventions and ideas. Benjamin Franklin awoke at 4 a.m. regularly to think about what he wanted to accomplish that day. Steve Jobs reportedly stood at the mirror every morning and asked, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?"
Benefits of reflection
You may be reluctant to slow down for anything, perhaps because you see only the drawbacks – the things you think you'll miss or the delays slowing down will cause. But learning to be a more reflective leader benefits you and everyone around you because it helps you:
- Develop more self-awareness about your presence and impact on others.
- Have greater clarity about your strengths and weaknesses, allowing you to build on what's working and fix what's not.
- Identify your triggers and determine how to respond more effectively to things that upset you.
- Hone your critical-thinking skills and become more adept at assessing situations, gathering and evaluating facts, and being more decisive.
- View failure as a chance to learn and grow.
- Accept responsibility for your feelings, thoughts and actions.
- Lead from a place of gratitude for what you have and what others bring to your life.
And perhaps most importantly, becoming a more reflective leader helps you create an environment for others that encourages learning as a crucial part of leadership.
Four simple steps to practice reflection
You're busy, of course. We all are. So here's the good news: It doesn't take a lot of time to reflect. While some people spend hours or days reflecting, you really only need a few minutes – especially if you do it regularly. Here is a simple four-step process:
- Observe – Think about a specific situation or period of time.
- Assess – Consider what worked, what didn't and why.
- Learn – Identify specific actions you can take to build on any success you had. Consider what you could change that could lead to a better result. Solicit additional feedback from someone you trust, if that's helpful.
- Apply – Put your learnings into practice. Repeat the process.
If you're willing to make this part of your daily routine, consider setting aside time for it as part of your morning or bedtime ritual when you are less likely to be distracted. Then practice mini-reflection moments throughout your day.
How to use reflection in your daily leadership
Spending time in reflection can help you become a more present and centered leader, which can lead to better results throughout your day. Practically speaking, being a more reflective leader can help you:
- Prepare for meetings
- Plan for a difficult conversation
- Set your intentions for the day
- Evaluate how your day went
- Create clarity in the midst of confusion
- Achieve restoration of something that's been lost
- Connect in meaningful ways with others
- Acknowledge others for the value they are adding
10 questions to prompt reflective thought
A key part of reflection is asking yourself the right questions to prompt deeper thinking. Here are 10 questions that have worked for me, and that I share with my coaching clients. What questions would you add?
- Are my goals clear?
- Am I making progress?
- What am I learning?
- What do I need to embrace?
- What needs to change?
- Who should I consider?
- What unique value can I bring?
- What would I do if I could do anything?
- What is one thing I'm not thinking about?
- What is the most important thing?
Isaac D'Israeli, a 19th Century British scholar and essayist, once wrote that "the act of contemplation then creates the thing contemplated." In other words, your reflections will shape your achievements as a leader. Giving yourself time to think through the things that are most important will help you live the future you've taken the time to envision.