From the Editor: Leadership Starts With Self-Reflection

African American man in self reflection
Theresa Witham Photo
VP/Publications & Publisher

4 minutes

Begin this daily practice to become a stronger leader.

“When we talk about leadership, it’s always good to remember that leadership is a journey. It isn’t a destination,” said Harry Kraemer, an executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm based in Chicago, and a Clinical Professor of Leadership at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Kraemer, one of the highest-rated CUES speakers ever, was the first presenter at the CUES Knowledge & Networking November event, which continues on Nov. 12 and Nov. 19.

Leadership has nothing to do with titles and org charts, he said. Instead, it has everything to do with how to influence people. “And the only way I know how to influence people is to be able to relate to people,” he added.

“If I can figure out a way to relate to Simon, maybe I can influence him. And if I can influence him, then I can lead him,” Kraemer explained.

Kraemer was speaking about leading during a crisis, professionally and personally. But if you wait until a crisis to implement his suggestions, it will be too late, because to be a strong leader—in good times or bad—you need to be self-reflective.

He recommends starting a practice of daily self-reflection. “That process of getting started is going to help you during ordinary times and particularly during a crisis,” he said.

The first step is to think about what really matters to you. Kraemer does this every year at a three-day silent retreat, where he ponders these questions:

  • What are my values?
  • What’s my purpose?
  • What really matters?
  • What kind of leader do I want to be?
  • What kind of follower do I want to be?

Of course, you don’t need to go on a retreat to answers these questions yourself, but it is worthwhile to set aside time each year, whenever makes the most sense to you. Perhaps it’s January with the New Year. It could be your birthday. Or you might tie it to your credit union’s annual review process. But knowing these guiding principles will help you be a better leader, especially during a crisis.

The second step to an effective self-reflection practice is to add the daily part. All you need is a short time, at most 30 minutes, alone and uninterrupted and without distractions from your phone or other devices to reflect on your day.

Each night, Kraemer examines these questions:

  • What did I say I was going to do today?
  • What did I actually do?
  • What am I proud of?
  • What am I not proud of?
  • How did I lead people?
  • How did I follow people?
  • If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
  • If I have a tomorrow (knowing fully well that sooner or later I won’t), based on what I learned today, how will I operate tomorrow?

“At the end of the day, everything related to leadership starts with self-reflection,” Kraemer said, because:

  1. If I’m not self-reflective, is it possible for me to know myself?
  2. If I don’t know myself, is it possible for me to lead myself?
  3. If I can’t lead myself, how can I possibly lead others?

Kraemer reflects around midnight each evening because that is the time that works best for him. But you could do this in the morning over coffee or during your daily walk or a jog. Again, the most important part is to pick a time that works for you. Block off time on your calendar daily if needed.

Crisis Communication

This daily practice of self-reflection will help in a crisis, because especially in a crisis, leaders can only succeed when they have built trust and credibility. Trust is built when you have clear values that you have communicated. People know they can depend on you and that you have the ability to communicate well.

In fact, in a crisis, your team will need to communicate at least three times as often, Kraemer said, even if you don’t have all of the information.

Your crisis communication should look like this:

Step 1: I will let the team know exactly what I know to be true. I’m not going to lie or make things up. I’m going to rely on the experts. This is important so that there is no confusion about what we know.

Step 2: I am going to openly explain what we don’t know and explain why we don’t know it.

Step 3: I will communicate how soon and how often we’ll get back to the team with updates on the things we didn’t know in step 2.

Finally, if we make a mistake about what we thought was true in step 1, we will correct that as soon as we know and explain why we were wrong.

“Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes. Because if we go back to the leadership formula, the ability to influence people by being able to relate to people, … most people don’t relate well to people who seem to know everything or never make mistakes,” Kraemer said. cues icon

Theresa Witham is CUES managing editor/publisher.

Register for Directors & Dialogue December

Don’t miss the opportunity to learn from top-rated speakers and connect with your colleagues! For three Wednesday afternoons in December, join us in learning about growth in a post-pandemic world, innovation and how to deal with mental wellness as an agile board.
Register Now
CUES Learning Portal