3x5 Leadership_Leader Reflection Series

How many of us can recall at least one instance of sitting in some lecture or professional development session where the speaker commented, “So, as you reflect on…” or “I challenge you to reflect on this matter this week and…”? Moreover, I personally have yet to find a formal leader development model that does not include some major component titled “reflection.” We cannot escape this word in any conversation relating to leadership or leader development.

So, if reflection is so important to leadership and leader development, how in the heck do we do it? When I think about reflection, I think about some abstract artistic process where a highly-creative leader comes up with a profound product or quote. I envision a leader like John Maxwell going into a room alone and emerging hours later covered in sweat and a whiteboard filled with his new “beautiful mind” revelations. I find this discouraging because I’m not known to be a creative person.

However, I’m a leader, therefore I must reflect, right? Short answer: Yes! Reflection is critical for effective and sustainable leader development and growth. Experience and new knowledge (such as from reading or formal education) alone is not sufficient for impactful leader growth. We need to deliberately take time to think about what we’ve experienced and learned, clarify and make meaning of the lesson, and be able to do something different in the future to improve our impact and performance as leaders. With that being said, reflection is much more of an art than a science. No two people reflect in the same way.

So, I go back to my last question: how do we reflect? In this series, I share everything I’ve learned so far about this thing called reflection. A main reason I write this blog is to materialize theory and the abstract, which is exactly what I intend to do with the act of reflecting. I aim to lead readers to be able to define how they can best reflect as leaders moving forward in order to maximize their learning and growth, and then to put it into action!

Defining Reflection

I believe our conversation on reflection needs to start with defining what it actually is. Like leadership itself, there are many different definitions or ways of interpreting it. I like to define reflection as a system of continuous, productive, deliberate thinking. It’s a process to reframe your thinking and problem solving, make connections between seemingly unrelated information, to create new knowledge and ideas, and become more self-aware of behaviors and your alignment with desired intent. It’s not some overly-intellectual exercise; it’s about self-improvement, being self-aware, knowing yourself, and getting better.

My favorite way of thinking about reflection is that it is a continuous process of “collecting dots and connecting those dots.” You collect dots through your experiences and education. You collect a dot when you find a new great thought or idea in a book, when you struggle through a failure at work, sit in a leader professional development session and learn a new way of thinking, or endure a challenging crucible. You connect those seemingly unrelated dots through reflection. Through deliberate reflection, you may be able to connect that idea from the book you read to your struggle at work and then create a new revelation, which leads you to think and act in a different way for improved future performance. The connections can be less defined, too; you may simply contemplate on a challenge for some time and move through your “mental rolodex” of models of how you view the world. In that way, you better clarify your challenge and thus way(s) to address it.

The Performance and Learning Dichotomy

We assemble teams for one of two simple reasons: to perform a task or to learn something new (research, investigations, etc.). Similarly, leaders are generally doing the same; they are either in a season of leading their organization to perform or engaging in focused learning in order to produce improved performance in the future. Think of an Army officer’s career where he/she leads and performs in an operational unit for a few years, but then takes a year pause to receive institutional education. Then he/she returns to the operational force to lead and perform at the next higher level.

3x5 Leadership_Performing - Learning Dichotomy

Performing and learning tend to be opposing forces on an organization, like on a spectrum shown above. It’s hard to perform and get results while being deeply focused on learning. We cannot only reside on the performing side of the spectrum as our ability to perform never improves. Similarly, we cannot live on the learning side as we are not applying our new knowledge to get results in any way. We need to be able to move back and forth on the spectrum. This can apply at the macro-level of one’s career, as mentioned above. More importantly, it can also apply at the micro-level of your time each day or week. In order to maximize learning and the impact of that learning in their performance, leaders need to be able to move along the spectrum, dedicating time to pause for learning amidst their daily performance. Reflecting is the way we pause for learning each day and/or week.

What’s Coming in the Series

In this reflection series, I’ll dive deeper into the following topics over the next four parts. Check out part II next week!

  • Part II: why reflecting is important so we understand its value and to give meaning to this abstract behavior.
  • Part III: offer a variety of ways that leaders can intentionally reflect to allow readers to test out and find the methods that best work for them (because we all reflect differently)
  • Part IV: I outline how I personally reflect each day and week. I offer the different ways that I think about my experiences and education, capture my lessons, and make meaning of them as an example for others to consider (as I know many readers like defined examples).
  • Part V: address reflection at the organizational level and how your team or organization can reflect as a whole to truly become a learning organization.

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