During her first coaching session with me, a CEO client recently declared, “I don’t spend a minute looking backward. I’m all about the future.” My reply: “Well, then you’re not even close to reaching your full potential.” To her credit she didn’t fire me. Instead she laughed and asked me to explain. Here’s a version of what I told her.

Being an extraordinary leader — or an extraordinary anything — involves having a disciplined and deliberate approach to harvesting lessons from one’s past and applying them to the present.

However, in business culture there is much bravado about being future-oriented and often a stigma attached to looking back. Productive self-reflection involves scrutinizing what happened in the past without bias, blame, or regret.

Eschewing a practice of regular, dedicated reflection creates a barrier to becoming smarter, better, and stronger. Here are some tips for building a self-reflection practice into your weekly routine.

  1. Recommit to being a learner. Your ego can get over-invested in a narrative of “who I am” and fight hard to maintain that narrative. Remind yourself that you are a continuously evolving person, not a finished product.
  2. Decide on an area of focus. The practice I’m describing here is not a “general” looking back on life as much as a focused review of something specific you would like to improve or change. For example, if your team members have stopped providing you with critical feedback, you might want to focus your inquiry on something related to your approachability and openness – or lack thereof.
  3. Create a daily writing practice. Keeping a journal requires the courage to be honest. Don’t self-censor! In your journal include what happened, what you felt, and what contributed to the situation. Write about moments when you felt frustrated or surprised. Include times when you felt successful or when you felt like a failure.

  4. Review your entries weekly. Actively review your entries and reflect on the lessons they might hold. Don’t get lost in blame or shame. Stick with questions such as: What did I contribute? What beliefs, assumptions, and expectations informed my behavior and did they work in my favor? What did I learn? What might I do differently next time?

Adopting a habit of self-reflection can be ego-bruising. That’s why it’s so easy to avoid. But…

…if you are willing engage in the practice with honesty and discipline here are some of the benefits you will garner:

  • Perspective: Stepping away from the current “fires” allows you to take a look at the larger landscape related to strategic priorities, team dynamics, and your leadership.
  • Judgment: Harvesting the insights of the past supports wise decision-making in the future.

  • Integrity: Developing a deeper understanding of your choices helps you align them with your values.

This blog is the first in a series of four. Stay tuned for more on “Getting Wiser” coming your way at the end of this month and into September.

Image Credit: Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

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