How Self-Reflection Can Make You a Better Leader
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Leadership Careers Dec 2, 2016

How Self-Reflection Can Make You a Better Leader

Setting aside 15 minutes a day can help you prioritize, prepare, and build a stronger team

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Self-reflection improves leadership over time

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Harry M. Kraemer

Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 27, 2020.

Your company’s new product launch is on hold indefinitely. Your entire team is under shelter-in-place orders. And your own makeshift “home office” resembles a second-grade science experiment run amok.

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As you frantically react to the global COVID-19 pandemic, are you in the mood to reflect on your larger goals? To consider what’s working, what isn’t, and what you might do in the future?

Probably not.

“The usual reaction is, ‘Well, I’ll just go faster,’” says Harry Kraemer, clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and former CEO of multibillion-dollar healthcare company Baxter International. But that’s mistaking activity for productivity. And productivity demands self-reflection.

Kraemer would know. For thirty-seven years—ever since he was unexpectedly duped into attending a spiritual retreat with his future father-in-law—he has made a nightly ritual of self-reflection. “Every day,” he emphasizes. Stepping back from the fray is how Kraemer, once the manager of 52,000 employees, avoided “running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”

Instead of constant acceleration, Kraemer says, leadership demands periods of restraint and consideration, even—perhaps especially—during a crisis. Leaders must regularly turn off the noise and ask themselves what they stand for and what kind of an example they want to set.

“Self-reflection is not spending hours contemplating your navel,” Kraemer says. “No! It’s: What are my values, and what am I going to do about it? This is not some intellectual exercise. It’s all about self-improvement, being self-aware, knowing myself, and getting better.”

Kraemer offers three ways that periodic self-reflection can strengthen leadership, as well as some of his favorite prompts.

8 Daily Self-Examination Questions

  1. What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?
  2. What did I actually do today?
  3. What am I proud of?
  4. What am I not proud of?
  5. How did I lead people?
  6. How did I follow people?
  7. If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
  8. If I have tomorrow (and I am acutely aware that some day I won’t), based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life?

Adapted from Harrykraemer.org

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Know Your Priorities—and Where You Fall Short

Anybody in a managerial position has two basic responsibilities: prioritize what must be done, and allocate resources to get those things done efficiently. “But how can you possibly prioritize or allocate if you haven’t figured out what really matters?” Kraemer asks.

Self-reflection allows us to understand what is important, and focus on what might be done differently.

Kraemer described an experience at Baxter where the company was focused on increasing its growth rate. Other firms were making acquisitions right and left, while Baxter was not. “So we stepped back,” says Kraemer, “and asked, if we want to grow externally, what are other companies doing that we aren’t?” It turned out that the companies that were growing successfully had diverted resources from their core operations to establish large business-development departments. Baxter at the time had a much smaller department. But until taking time to research and reflect on the matter, “we didn’t realize we needed a larger team of people who could fully dedicate themselves to this issue,” he says.

Of course, after priorities have been defined, it is important for action to follow. To prevent a gulf between word and deed, Kraemer writes out his self-reflection each night, creating a record of what he has done and what he says he will do. He also checks continuously with family, friends, and close colleagues to ensure he is holding himself accountable and “not living in some fantasy land.”

Minimize Surprise

Generally speaking, the key to minimizing surprise is to forecast and plan obsessively, accounting for as many scenarios as possible.

While running Baxter, Kraemer oversaw multiple chemical-processing and manufacturing plants around the world.

“I wasn’t ‘surprised’ if there was a fire in one of those plants or if something blew up,” he says. Quality, safety, and compliance standards are, of course, essential to minimizing the possibility of disaster. “But we were self-reflective enough to realize that it could happen. So, when it did happen, we weren’t confused,” he says. “We dealt with it.”

Of course, forecasting has its limits, and COVID-19 has caught even the most self-aware leaders by surprise. But this makes it even more important to reflect on how your organization will handle the crises that will inevitably erupt in the weeks and months to follow, and develop as many contingency plans as possible.

Preparation has the added benefit of reducing anxiety about the possibility of things going wrong, says Kraemer. He advises thinking about the worst possible outcome: beloved family members or employees falling critically ill, for instance. Knowing exactly what initial steps you will take should tragedy hit can keep fear and stress at bay.

Personally, he likes to tell himself the following mantra—an overarching principle that will guide his actions during periods of uncertainty: “You’re going to do the right thing, and you’re going to do the best you can.” He adds, “I try to repeat this over and over again.”

“If I’m going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I’m going to try to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection.”

Build Stronger Teams

Self-reflection’s effects go beyond the self, Kraemer points out: “If I don’t know myself, is it possible for me to lead myself? I doubt that. If I can’t lead myself, how could I possibly lead other people?”

Learn more from Harry Kraemer in the Kellogg Executive Education Enterprise Leadership Program.

Strong leaders, he says, not only practice self-reflection themselves; they also encourage their teams to do so. “I have a responsibility to develop every single person I touch,” says Kraemer. And of course, a self-reflective team is a team that has its priorities straight and arrives prepared to deal with any setbacks.

So if one of his employees or students is “bouncing around like a lunatic,” he schedules a meeting with him or her to establish the value of settling down for a moment, taking a breath, and considering what’s important. “If I’m going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I’m going to try to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection,” he says.

Next Steps

How can leaders get themselves, and their teams, practicing self-reflection? Kraemer does not prescribe a specific process; how a person reflects, he says, is a personal matter. (In this article, however, he shares some of his favorite prompts.)

But Kraemer is adamant that leaders—and leaders-to-be—carve self-reflection into their daily routine. It takes only 15 minutes, and can be done while taking a walk, gardening, or sipping a cup of coffee.

Still convinced you cannot fit self-reflection on your calendar? That’s often an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable exercise, he says.

“There could be a pretty big difference between what you say is important and what you’re actually doing, and you may not want to confront that.”

About the Writer

Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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