“We had the experience – but missed the meaning” T.S Eliot
Leadership can often be confused with a level of seniority, a role or a title, but in fact the work of leading is about influencing people and processes in the service of accomplishing a collective aim or group goal. It is about creating results that benefit the organisation’s stakeholders.
It is interesting to think about how we learn to be leaders. Many organisations provide leadership training at the various stages of management development, usually focused on skills training. What defines successful leadership is how we apply those skills, how we understand their impact, and how we learn from experience. The short-term nature of most business environments mean that there is a bias towards action; reflection is quite possibly seen as a waste of time - time which could be more purposefully spent attending meetings, dealing with emails, speaking on the phone or putting out fires. In many organisations this bias towards action is seen as the pathway towards achievement and career success – yet research has proven that reflection is an essential ingredient in long-term sustainable and successful leadership.
The goal of reflection is to understand why a particular situation was successful or unsuccessful, how one’s own behaviour and style contributed to this, and how the behaviours of others impacted the situation and outcome. In the military it is commonplace to conduct “After Action” reviews to determine the source of success or failure. The key questions are:
· What happened?
· What IF (something else had been done)?
· What are the lessons learned?
· What insights can be applied to future situations?
The purpose of reflection is to be conscious of the layers of experience and bias (conscious and unconscious) you apply to a situation, and when this lens is made visible it can be transformed into insight and alternative action, which can then be applied and reviewed. These concepts are not new – John Dewey, and more recently David Kolb, both researched adult learning and leadership theories. To quote John Dewey “we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience.”
This approach is at the very core of Praesta Executive Coaching programmes, where coaching takes place in the context of reflection and growth from ‘liveline’ experiences. The benefit of a coach is to help peel the layers of the client’s perspectives, offer an alternative lens, support the client develop their range of options and approaches, and encourage experimentation and growth. However, whether or not you engage in a formal coaching process, buying a journal and spending the last 10 minutes of every working day reflecting on the above questions will deliver far more than ten minutes of input into your leadership journey… perhaps the best ROI of your time that day.