The Contemplative Leader

The Contemplative Leader

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Plato

In  management there is a bias towards action, and necessarily so. Managers get things done through people and they manage production, output, outcomes, and systems. The last expectation we have of a manager or executive leader is that they spend hours, or even a whole day per week thinking and reflecting on who, what and how they manage.

Yet the staple of most mid to large sized companies and organizations, the management retreat, is indicative of the awareness of the need to step back and “look at the dance floor from the balconey”.

On a personal level some of our most successful entrepreneurs, religious leaders and public figures are also people who make it a  priority to spend a significant amount of alone time in reflection. They muse over everything from their performance as a leader to work/life balance to whether or not their organization is staying true to its core values.

Some people are just naturally more introspective than others. They process things internally, pay attention to their thoughts and feelings about what is being said and done and are content spending copious time alone. For managers, whether introspective or not by nature, getting alone to reflect on performance, your own and your team’s, is the best use of time away from the office. In fact, the time spent reflecting on performance is inversely proportional to the time you’ll have to spend making the same mistakes, allowing morale-killing behavior to continue, and having to force people into alignment with your goals.

Step one: Press Pause

I recommend for beginners taking two days out of a quarter, preferably away from the office, with a notebook, your calendar, and ideally, a window to gaze out of. Taking walks or a jog or a long drive can help to mentally remove you from your daily grind. One City manager took two whole days off from work just to figure out how to work exercise into her work/life routine. It’s got to be that radical. Work up to a “sabbatical week” each year. That week may or may not be spent away, but it will be a week when you allocate hours each day just to reflect on your work and your personhood as a leader rather than just doing. Schedule your blank spaces for solitude.

Step two: Search your feelings

I like to put topics on the top of blank pages and then commit myself to filling them out. One-liners like:

What’s going really well?

What sucks right now?

What am I pretending not to know or notice?

What would I like to see happen in this area or, what do I need more of in my life?

Step three: Feel the “ouch”

Your scribbled musings might lead you to some gut discomfort. You might realize that you gloss over the fact that your #2 is clearly frustrated with you and you keep blowing him off. You might allow your consciousness to surface the chill that has been hovering over your staff meetings since you let a popular but poorly performing supervisor go.

Step four: Reflect on your feedback

Coach Mike Ditka made a routine of replaying elements of a previous game with a team before getting ready for the next one. What kind of feedback have you been getting about yourself, your supervision, your presence at meetings, your leadership, the choices you’ve made? Do you practice the kind of walk-around management that would even alert you to such feedback?

Before a new initiative or a reimagined old one, take time to replay what has gone well and what has not. I am not suggesting that this substitutes for team reflection time; a time that should include, perhaps, a strategic planning coach. This is the reflection on the impact your actions or inactions have had on project outcomes and on employees’ experience of working with you.

Step five: Make a make a plan

Notice, I didn’t say that this was also a time to plan. I know many people use their reflective time that way but unless you have a third day during that quarter you’ll need the two whole days (at minimum) just to reflect and take notes. Then, as part of your monthly and weekly reflection time, you can schedule problem solving both alone and with your team. To jump to quickly into fixing things while you’re in a  reflective mood can sabotage the process and shut down introspection.

I can’t stress enough the importance of developing a habit of journaling, even a few lines a week, to continue incorporating contemplative methodology in your daily work.

If you will make the time annually, quarterly, monthly and daily to stop and assess your own effectiveness not just as a leader but in life, mindfulness will become more of an ingrained way of life governing your speech, your reactions and your priorities.

The world needs you and me to be fully present so that we can give our best. Let’s give it to them!

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