The Team Sport of Self-Reflection
I believe self-reflection is the most important practice in leadership and in life. I call it a practice because self-reflection is the work one puts in to achieve self-awareness. Self-awareness is the goal because self-awareness is the characteristic that separates great from average.
Having the skills to look within when our human instinct is to look outward takes work and it takes the help of others. It is a misnomer to believe we can be great at self-reflection by ourselves.
I have always been very self-analytical and critical which only requires me and my thoughts. Only when I took my first leadership position in my career did I learn how necessary it was to learn the skills necessary to walk the thin line between self-criticism and self-reflection by using others to help you know yourself.
I was completely ill prepared for leadership when I took my first role. This was ironic because my first leadership role was over thirty people. I had no idea how to be responsible for others or for outcomes that required I work through others. I didn’t know how to get through a day without a tactical to-do list of my own. Within months, I was failing miserably at my job. My team was turning over, they did not trust me and I had no idea what to do about it.
This is the first time in my life that I remember having a moment of actual self-reflection. I sat with myself not in critique but with a desire to change the outcome of the trajectory I was on. I had beat myself up for months and knew I wasn’t doing a good job. Rather than continue to dwell in self analysis, I found a determination within myself and decided that I was not going to quit. I decided that if was going down as a leader, I was going to go down being myself. If I was going down being myself, I would have to figure out who I was. I learned that I was going to have to use this team of mine to figure out who I was so that I could recover from the mess I had made. I had zero self-reflection skills and a lot of self-pity and critique to work through so it was going to take a lot of work to find a more productive way to understand myself. I had to start to look within myself by asking for help from others.
I hosted a meeting with my team and I asked for feedback. I shared that I believed I was failing and asked for help in understanding myself so that I could turn the ship around. I asked each member of my team to write down my strengths and weaknesses on sticky pads, drop them in a bowl and then I read them out load. I also wrote what I thought the answers would be in my notepad and put a tally mark every time the characteristic was repeated by my team. What became apparent is that I am who I am, I know who I am and that who I am shows up in a very distinct way to others. What was also clear is that my team saw a lot more strengths in me than I had been seeing in myself. When we were done with my list, I asked the team to help me create a to-do list for myself as a leader. I asked them to help me create strategies for leveraging my strengths in a way that helped the team and asked for ways to work through my weaknesses with their help.
The list didn’t make me a great leader overnight, but it gave me purpose. Having a list gave me confidence that I had more to bring as a leader than I had been giving myself credit for. I also realized quickly that having a leadership to-do list helped me shift into being a leader instead of an individual technical contributor. I knew how I needed to add value. The exercise also created a trusting bond between myself and my team members. The moment of authentic vulnerability created space for them to realize I needed them to be successful as much if not more than they needed me.
I use this exercise regularly in my life when I am feeling out of control of a team dynamic, or when I am feeling out of control of my always present self-critique. I use others to help me reset my self-awareness through self-reflection. The real gold nugget of this story that I want everyone to remember is that self-reflection is actually a team sport and should involve the people in your life that are impacted by who you are. The practice should involve feedback and it should involve tactical to-lists for leveraging and managing who you are on a daily basis.
I hope you will all sit with a few people in your life and do this exercise this week. Think about a place in your life that isn’t fully clicking in or that feels stuck. That’s the group or person you should do this exercise with. Maybe it’s your boss, your team or even your spouse. Sit with them, put your defenses down, participate by writing down your own strengths and weaknesses and ask for HELP. Create a to-do list for both your strengths and weaknesses and reflect on that to do list every night.
Use the comments in this blog to share your stories with the TRIBE. Happy Self-Reflecting!