How can you be a leader without self-reflection?

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If you went to most Type-A company builder guys and asked them to make a leadership skills list, I assume it might look something like this:

  • Brings in clients
  • Makes money

… and that’s the end of the list. Now, this shouldn’t necessarily be the case — but often it is. We have boatloads of research on leadership at this point; we even have intel on the eight most crucially-effective leadership skills out there (potentially). There are so many ways to look at leadership by this point that it’s hard to enumerate. Most of us are just drowning in daily tasks and hoping we don’t work for assholes, but maybe there’s something to this idea of a leadership skills list.

Here’s the common issue, though. Usually when you talk about leadership skills, there are two categories:

  • The “real deal” stuff (tied to making money)
  • The “soft” stuff (we know it’s important, but hard to track)

Since companies love them some Spreadsheet Mentality, “soft” leadership skills traditionally fall by the wayside. Best example: we all know it’s vitally important to communicate well at work, but almost no one ever does it. Work communication, instead, is usually screeching and bellowing around hierarchy. (“Because I make more money, you need to do this no-priority horse manure thing for me.”)

All this said, what should be at the top of a leadership skills list? I’ve got a contender.

Leadership skills list: The value of self-reflection

At work, I’ve always noticed that people don’t really do much self-awareness / self-analysis stuff. It’s mostly just putting your head down and moving from task to task, meeting to meeting, and call to call. (At most places.) We’ve had research in the past that a lack of self-awareness on teams usually cripples the team. At most places I’ve ever worked or observed, I’d say that is fairly true.

Now we’ve got a new article from Kellogg (Northwestern) called “How Self-Reflection Can Make You A Better Leader.” The types of guys entering Trump’s Cabinet? They would read that headline and meow, “I don’t want to be a better leader. I want a fatter fucking bonus.” Those guys now run America, so that’s fun. But for those who care about being a better leader, there’s this:

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.

This guy Kraemer quoted here once managed 52,000 people — so he knows a few things, kinda sorta.

Why is self-reflection valuable, though?

Well, it’s in that quote above. Most companies are a complete priority vacuum. (Even some of the highest revenue-generators.) This happens very logically:

  • The top ranks care about making money and prioritize that
  • The middle ranks want to impress the top ranks but don’t have the intel about the money-making (the top ranks hoard it), so they create things to focus on
  • Those created elements are usually “sense of urgency” projects not rooted in anything — which is also somehow how we hire
  • The low ranks have to do this bullshit work and burn out on the job (happens everywhere)
  • Everyone bitches about it and no one does anything
  • Rinse and repeat

Self-reflection cuts through all that. Now you’re critically looking at what’s been good and bad in a given week, day, month, etc. You can see where your personal pain points were, where you lost money, etc. Self-reflection is a way of putting yourself on a spreadsheet and “crunching the financials,” just like you would with any product or deal. You do this successfully, and bam — priorities are back up for you and your team. This is why it really needs to top your personal leadership skills list.

How can you start working self-reflection into the old leadership skills list?

Here’s a simple thing I did when I was a teacher in Houston in 2003. Every day, I wrote down three positive things from that day — and one negative thing. So on Friday afternoon, I had 15 positive things and 5 negative things. That means you feel good about yourself and your week — 3 to 1 ratio on positive stuff — but you also realize you have new things to work on next week. Every month, look at the 20 (five a week x 4) bad things and see where there is overlap. Now you have things to focus on for the next month. This is a small exercise in self-reflection. It helps, though.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

The problem for managers at work is that they become obsessed with being gatekeepers of productivity, which usually makes them micromanagers. Everyone hates that, gets burned out, and leaves. People usually leave managers and not jobs, and we all know that. And the major reason this shit happens? Because most managers construe a “leadership skills list” as:

  • Make sure Michael gives me a Q2 report.
  • Talk to Bill about the tone of his emails.
  • Check with Bob on the Manson account.

That’s actually a list of “boxes to check,” not even remotely a leadership skills list. But unfortunately, those two things are often confused.

Can you hire or promote for self-reflection?

Of course. The issue is this: if the people hiring or promoting have little self-reflection, they probably will not see it in others. Interviews are comically bad judges of anything, and most job interviews are even worse — they’re rooted in meaningless questions and steaming piles of subjectivity. Not sure how that ever became “a strategy” to “get the best people,” but oh well! Hiring is broken, and HR is a cancer at most orgs. At a time when executives are under record levels to pressure to prove growth, HR makes it so that you get crappy people and drown everything in process. Wait, did someone say something about proving growth?

Don’t even get me going on promotion. That’s all about rewarding like-minded people to the existing power core, even if those being rewarded aren’t the hardest or best workers. At some companies, it’s actually negative to be good at your job — your boss will keep you there forever. I don’t know how “excelling at a job” became a bad thing for some human beings, but this happens at a lot of places. Promotions keep people happy with who they need to deal with day-to-day. That’s why some thumb-sucking jamoke who does nothing all week suddenly will become your firm’s “Chief Strategy Officer.” The CEO likes him, so he’s minted now.

All of the above is not self-reflection, and that’s why it’s hard for most to hire/promote around that. But try asking better questions. Here’s an example of a good interview question! In it, you ask someone to ID a problem — self-reflection! — and then you ask them how they know they solved it (can use data!). That all speaks to self-awareness, which should be atop any leadership skills list.

What else would you add on self-reflection or the idea of a leadership skills list?

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