Over the past couple of decades, I’ve been lucky enough to connect with many leaders around the world. Having worked internationally in 5 different countries over the past 20+ years, I’ve seen a wide range of leadership styles across multiple different contexts and industry. Although the field of education has been my primary focus, I have also been able to connect with, observe, interact, and coach a number of leaders in other fields as well.
This has led to developing a deep interest in the concept of ‘leadership’ and the notion of what makes the most impactful leaders great at what they do. Regardless of industry, why is it that some leaders seem to naturally inspire confidence, trust, hard work, and loyalty, whereas others repeatedly stumble, show limited growth, and fail to hold the mirror of accountability up to themselves?
The topic of leadership has been explored from countless angles over the last 50-60 years and there are no simple answers when it comes to the question, “What makes leaders great at what they do.”
Research done by Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas have led them to believe that being a great leader has something to do with a person’s ability to pick apart negative events and learn from them. As Bennis and Thomas say, “the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances”.
It takes a certain mindset to be able to address adversity and conquer it. The the following words of Hellen Keller bear deep reverence in regards to the importance of overcoming very difficult challenges in life.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”
Although many leaders are competent and bring a wealth of experience to their role, research suggests that very few of them make the time for deep reflection. Some may do a superficial dive into their own impact and take the risk needed to get honest feedback, but reflective practice is what accelerates improvement of leadership skills and enables leaders to better understand themselves and others.
Leaders who value and prioritize deep reflection as part of their own journey of learning (especially during times of struggle and hardship) are the ones who experience much more growth in their career. It’s these types of leaders who have the courage to face the feelings of discomfort, vulnerability, and defensiveness that can arise as a result of deeply reflecting on one’s performance.
They understand that the process of reflection helps lead them to valuable insights and even breakthroughs in their own leadership abilities. This is particularly true when they face harsh, negative feedback from their colleagues.
Rather than ignore or push aside this feedback, make excuses, or get angry, they choose to address it head on and learn from it. For example, I know one leader who received very harsh feedback that indicated most people in the organization felt that this leader was too controlling, not genuine, unpredictable, and was not transparent at all in their words and actions.
At first, this leader felt upset and defensive. Their gut instinct was to turn the finger of blame back on those who provided them with the feedback. However, through a process of deep reflection, they had the courage to ask themselves to what extent was there any truth in this feedback. Through our work together, this leader reflected, in written form, on a specific set of specific questions that we created together.
What is it that I fear the most about letting go of (some) control?
How long has this fear of letting go of control been present in my life? Provide specific examples.
What is holding me back from being more genuine with my colleagues?
What do I need to let go of within myself to be able to better communicate with my colleagues?
How might I build more trust with my colleagues?
This leader is still working on their own improvement plan. However, asking a different set of questions enabled them to be more expansive in their own thinking. It helped to frame up their own learning and growth through a different lens. Doing so has sparked some needed change in their own leadership practice, but it all began with their willingness to invest in deep reflection as part of their own journey of learning.
Establishing a specific process for reflecting on one’s leadership is not easy, but necessary for growth. The process doesn't have to be the exact same for each leader, but figuring out the best process is what matters the most. I hope this post helps you to think about your own leadership practice and how you might continually learn and improve.
Thanks for reading.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.