Updated: Aug 8, 2022
"I can't believe how much it helps to verbalise my thoughts. All the answers come naturally."
This is what a senior leader, going through a transition, shared with me as the central insight after our reflective learning session. She is the leader you go to if you want a solution, not another challenge. She is self-reliant and strong and used to manage things independently.
But transition times are hard for everyone in different ways. To her surprise, being in a trusted and non-judgemental environment allows for the most unexpected insights to surface. We bury these insights deep by being busy and sometimes even hiding from them. She came to the session with no topic to discuss. She found something she wasn't even aware she was looking for. She also discovered that we have all the answers we need, if only we dare to look for them.
Reflective learning looks at the leader holistically. Before being a leader, we are human beings who come with personality traits, values, mental models, assumptions, patterns, and experiences. While in our perception, we can separate leadership, actions and decisions from who we are, who we are comes across much more strongly than what we do. We invest time and effort to develop ourselves by gaining new skills, focusing on what and how we do every day, but very rarely do we deep dive into the next level of who we are, what shaped us and how we got here.
Learning is today, in a world of continuous transformation, a mandatory enabler for leaders. We learn from books, academic resources, courses, or work with a coach. However, we do forget that our life is our most outstanding teacher. Our relationships with others, conflicts, and choices speak more loudly than our business strategy, KPIs, and job titles. Learning and unlearning are reinforced by what happens moment by moment, much more than what we do once a week.
Allowing this space for deep reflection takes real-life experiences and extracts insights about ourselves. Suddenly, we seem to uncover new parts of ourselves and create new practical strategies for increasing our impact through our work. We are learning to listen to ourselves, come face to face with our assumptions, notice patterns, change what we see, change the way we see things and ultimately, see ourselves differently.
We become better leaders with greater awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for ourselves. We become the catalysts of change, reflective leaders who transformed organisations and people not only through what they do but mostly from who they are.
"The life which is unexamined is not worth living." - Socrates
Reflective learning becomes the container in which actual change happens: learning by engaging fully with work and life, transforming our being and our doing, in coherence with our minds and hearts - all creating a super-vision for ourselves.
Here are a few reflective questions that can surface new insights and bring value to a challenge you have. Use pen and paper to write as you go, not filtering the answers that arise.
Think of the most significant challenge you face as a leader at the moment.
What assumptions are you making about the situation, about yourself and others?
Where and how often are you making the same assumptions, including the other areas of life?
What is the best way to validate the assumption that impacts most how you see the situation at the moment?
With these new insights, look at your new understanding of the challenge. What role could you play, as a leader, to transform it into an opportunity?
When I met my reflective learning teacher for the first time, I was going through the messy middle of a career and life transformation—the very messy and painful part. I was looking for directions, so I asked her what her advice was. She told me to "sit with the tension". It was not the answer I expected, and it did seem a bit of a joke considering my emotional turmoil. I needed action to get me out of the situation rather than stay in it. But when we escape what we don't like, we miss out on the most important lesson for us. Little did I know that sitting the tension would be one of the most important skills I had to integrate for working with people and with myself. Sitting with uncertainty in front of someone still looking for their answers is a sign of respect and trust. That very moment was the start of new growth.
Soon after, I observed humanity in working with clients, which I did not often see in meetings within organisations. I saw the real reason they became leaders in the first place: they cared deeply about the challenges and the people around them. I saw their hearts. I ran away from that vulnerability and humanity for many years, but the truth is that it always finds a way back to ourselves. Self-acceptance is the first step toward expansion; it's not complacency.
This wholeheartedness, humanity, and fully showing up are differentiating ingredients in leadership. Only wholehearted leaders can create meaningful business missions and make a real difference in people's lives. They are the ones that ignite and capture people's hearts and minds and create ripple effects beyond the boundaries of their organisations.
I am lucky enough to witness many other reflective leaders who open doors to the future.