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

Self-reflection improves leadership over time

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Harry M. Kraemer

Your com­pa­ny is expand­ing into Chi­na. Your most trust­ed team mem­ber put her notice in this morn­ing. And your desk resem­bles a sec­ond-grade sci­ence exper­i­ment run amok.

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As you fran­ti­cal­ly con­sid­er where to throw your atten­tion, are you in the mood to reflect on what’s dri­ving your behav­ior? To ana­lyze your larg­er goals? To con­sid­er what got you into this sit­u­a­tion and how you might avoid it 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. 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.

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

Mem­bers of the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary are excel­lent role mod­els for self-reflec­tion, Krae­mer says. They fore­cast and plan obses­sive­ly in order to do one thing — min­i­mize surprise.

If the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States calls and says, I want an air­craft car­ri­er in the Mid­dle East,’ and the air­craft car­ri­er gets there and all of a sud­den it gets bombed, the mil­i­tary isn’t say­ing, Oh, what are we going to do? We got bombed!’” he points out. They’ve already thought that that might happen.”

Like­wise, while run­ning Bax­ter, where he 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.”

And self-reflec­tion need not mit­i­gate only out-of-the-blue dis­as­ters; it also pre­pares lead­ers for more rou­tine, but no less insid­i­ous dis­ap­point­ments. As head of a pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­ny, for instance, Krae­mer knew that not every quar­ter­ly per­for­mance was going to be pos­i­tive. To assume that per­for­mance is going to go up every sin­gle quar­ter — that’s not real­ly log­i­cal. And by the way, when the drop does hap­pen, what are you going to do about it?”

Prepa­ra­tion has the added ben­e­fit of reduc­ing anx­i­ety about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of things going wrong, says Krae­mer. What keeps you up at night? I used to say, I have a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­ny…’ Now I say, Noth­ing keeps me awake. If it takes me a while to go to sleep, I’ll just read anoth­er book.”

The rea­son many, many peo­ple have trou­ble bal­anc­ing their lives is that they have not been self-reflec­tive enough to fig­ure out what they’re try­ing to balance.”

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?”

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 meets 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 the side­bar, 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 we all have 15 min­utes some­where in the day: dur­ing a com­mute, dur­ing exer­cise, dur­ing a cup of cof­fee. In fact, as an added ben­e­fit, reflec­tion can lead to find­ing more time for what is important.

The rea­son many, many peo­ple have trou­ble bal­anc­ing their lives is that they have not been self-reflec­tive enough to fig­ure out what they’re try­ing to bal­ance,” he says. You might say, Boy, my spouse is real­ly, real­ly impor­tant to me.’ But do you spend time with her? Or do you assume you’re too busy? Is spend­ing time with her a pri­or­i­ty or isn’t it a priority?”

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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