Becoming a Reflective Leader

July 14, 2010 — 6 Comments

Leaders tend to be people of action. Doers. Agents of change. That’s good and necessary because we all know that talk is cheap. Effective leadership is all about turning vision into action, right?

For me, problems arise when my bias toward action becomes a treadmill of ceaseless activity. This tires everyone out and inevitably leads to a loss of focus, loss of presence, personal fatigue and mission drift. This is when I become vulnerable to the temptation of lesser things: quick fix ‘solutions’ (sinful or otherwise) for urgent problems that mask a waning intimacy with my Source of power, life and strength.

In our overloaded media-saturated world, reflection is becoming a lost art.

This week I’m up at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, enjoying a wonderful week-long intensive focused on the Servant Leader’s Inner Life. Our readings and conversations reinforce the absolute necessity of cultivating habits of reflection. Justin, our prof, opened the week by asking us to think about two leaders who have experienced personal or professional failure due to lack of attention to the inner life. This launched a 90-minute discussion (we had no shortage of examples) around what may have contributed to these failures, and what personal habits may have helped prevent them, had they been in place.

As if on cue, my friend Sam in Nigeria sent me a link to a column entitled “Your Most Important Conversation” by Gordon MacDonald. Gordon is one of my favorite writers because he knows what it’s like to fall and he writes with authentic, grounded spirituality. This quote caught my attention:

Withdrawal for inner conversation parallels the priority flight attendants express when passengers on a plane are told that, if the oxygen masks appear, they should put theirs on first before helping others. Counter-intuitive, especially for mothers, but thoroughly logical.

Writer Anthony Bloom described his father as a man who knew inner conversation well. When he felt the need to do his own soul-work, he would sometimes tack a sign to his front door: “Don’t go to the trouble of knocking. I am at home, but I will not answer the door.”

This is not easy for those of us who are people-pleasers. We are suckers for knocks on our front door.

Are you a sucker? Servant leaders are called not to please people, but to please the Lord by meeting people’s real needs as they are revealed through interaction and reflection. In my experience,  the busier my schedule, the more I need to carve out space to think, listen, pray and reflect. Think Jesus in Mark 1, pulling away before dawn when everyone was looking for him.

What habits help you practice reflective leadership?

6 responses to Becoming a Reflective Leader

  1. Thanks Ken. I’m taking a few days away to do some reflection and it is so good. My problem is just as you have described. When I need it the most is when I’m the busiest and when I’m least likely to get it. I’m going to redouble my efforts to carve it out in the crazy times in the coming year.

  2. great post ken. i’m in a season of reflection as we transition from one role and one side of the country to another.

    one way i gauge my capacity to be or not to be a sucker is asking the question “am i driving or being driven?”–when i’m filled up in relation to my inner world, i’m usually driving–making decisive, future-oriented, value-based leadership actions.

    the converse is much more messy and frustrating–reactionary, present-oriented, and worldly actions.

    thanks for the reminder!

  3. Thanks Tom and Brian. Great insights. Brian, today we actually discussed the difference between DRIVE and DRIVENNESS. Good leadership occurs when we are self-controlled, able to push in the clutch, gas or brake as the situation requires. That is drive. Drivenness is when one is consistently pulled beyond healthy boundaries by inner needs for approval, significance, achievement, growth, false relational harmony or a myriad of other things.

    kc

  4. Ken –

    Convicting post as the twitter feed keeps chirping in the background. Currently reading a book that supports these others. Heroic Leadership is about the leadership values of the Jesuits that helped them seize extraordinary opportunities to transform their world.

    The first value? Self-awareness – “to order one’s life”

    from page 27:

    “Leaders thrive by understanding who they are and what they value, by becoming aware of unhealthy blind spots or weaknesses that can derail them, and by cultivating the habit of continuous self-reflection and learning.

    Only a person who knows what he or she wants can pursue it energetically and inspire others to do so. Only those who have pinpointed their weaknesses can conquer them. Obvious principles, but rarely heeded in practice.”

    How did they do this?

    1. Every new recruit started with the thirty day Spiritual Exercises that demanded “total intellectual, emotional, and spiritual engagement”.

    2. Upon completion of the exercises, it was reinforced by the daily Examen – a 3x per day exercise that confesses God as primary, examined choices made so far in the day, and evaluated whether “subsequent attitudes and choices brought him closer to his long-term goals or moved him further away”.

    Simple, Powerful, and oh so difficult to do.

  5. Julia Hageman July 14, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Ken-I love this entry! very powerful! I just read “The Gift of Being Yourself” this summer by David Benner which is an incredible read. He speaks of many of the same things you just discussed in your entry and the proceeding posts. Thanks for sharing your insights and know that your leadership has deeply impacted both Tony and my life! We are deeply thankful for both you and Ann! Julia

  6. Matt and Julia – Thanks for the book recommendations. I have both of them (but confess I have not yet read “Heroic Leadership”). Benner’s book really is a treasure. Thanks, kc

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