“The most effective way to lead is to lead from within.”
In the United States, Halloween is a significant celebration. Derived, at least in part, from the ‘Feast of All Hallows (All Saints)’ which falls on November 1 each year, the quote from Lolly Daskal is pertinent. The Saints all had one thing in common, they learned how to develop an interior life that allowed them to ‘lead from within’. The ability to do so, is the hallmark, not of good or even great leadership but rather a leadership that is built on the solid foundation of interiority and as a result likely to be deliberate, purposeful, intentional and as a consequence, distinguished and outstanding leadership to the outside world.
What does this have to do with Careers in Government? Quite a lot is the simple answer.
To ‘lead from within’ speaks to our notion of personal leadership and with that, our notions of personal responsibility for the leadership role we are undertaking. History is littered with people who managed to develop themselves into a better version of themselves, in order to benefit their team, their organization, their government agency, their community.
How might this be achieved? ‘Critical Reflective Practice’ is a term often used in the ‘Helping / Caring Profession’ such as teaching, nursing, social work, psychology /counseling
A good example of this, according to General John E Michel (USAF Retired), can be found in the leadership of Pope Francis.
“The world’s first Jesuit Pope is demonstrating daily his commitment to becoming the best human being he can possibly be. Not for selfish gain, mind you. But because he understands a life well lived is a life dedicated to serving humanity—one opportunity to add value to your surroundings at a time.”
John E Michel (2014) ‘LEARN to be that Somebody’ in General Leadership
What type of twenty-first-century leader do you want to be, reflective or reactive?
General Michel is correct in his assessment of the leadership of Pope Francis. It is an assessment though that could be applied to any good, successful leader. At the foundation of this assessment, is that an outstanding leader needs to first and foremost be a reflective leader, one who develops themselves into a better iteration of themselves on a daily basis and in so doing, adds value to the people they seek to lead and serve. The reflective leader has the capacity as part of their moments of reflection, to test assumptions, consider the culture of the organization and how it might be improved and thus harness the talent and skillset within the organization.
Of course, it helps that Pope Francis is a Jesuit.
According to Campbell ‘The Examen’ focuses on the present, with an eye to the future. The key questions to ask yourself at the end of the day are:
- From your perspective as a manager, what was the high point of the day?
- The low point of the day”…Again, look for reasons and patterns
. Whenwere you working at your best during the day ? Whendid you struggle to stay focused and engaged ? Howhectic was the day ? Thinkabout each of your direct reports. Imagine how he/she might have pictured interacting with you . Looktoward tomorrow.
See Paul Brian Campbell SJ (ND) ‘Review of the Day for Managers’
Of course, to do this requires some important ingredients. To start with, the manager/leader needs to find time. The process is about slowing down to be reflective rather than reactive. Ideally, they should be schooled in the art of centering, a meditation technique that allows you to focus on yourself in this present moment with all distractions put to one side. Another idea would be the use of tools such as a journal or some recording technique, the purpose of which is to capture the essence of this moment of reflection, even if in answer to Campbell’s questions above. Finally, it requires the resolve and commitment to a process that develops yourself as both a person and as an extension of this, as a leader. An outcome of this should be a better sense or self-knowledge of how you might positively benefit your team or government agency tomorrow. In essence, it is an invitation to step into the shadow, as, ‘The Superintendent, Paw Paw Public Schools (Paw Paw, Michigan)’, Mark Bielang wrote rather powerfully in 2014.
“I’ve extended this belief in designing the agendas for our monthly Leadership Team meetings. We incorporate an element of self-reflection into each meeting, which helps bring us to that space and serves to strengthen the personal relationships that are vital to our success.
‘Flight from the Shadow’ is the perfect antidote to the frantic pace of everyday life. It reminds me and other district leaders that we must step into the shade, sit down, and stay still.
Being still, even for brief periods of time, gives us the chance to listen to our inner voice, gain broader perspectives, and thus better serve ourselves as well as our students and staff.”
Mark Bielang (2014) ‘Words of encouragement #34 – May 2014’
What is important in this process is not so much the time given over to it, though that is a key element but rather, giving yourself and your leadership team over to the process of reflection in the first place. It is helpful if you have the same time and space most days. This regularity builds the practice into a habit, which means you are more likely to do it! As a leader, developing your team in reflective leadership may require accessing a person who can help to build the capacity of your team in this area. This is a specialized area of work, so source the person you use carefully. It is important to develop your leadership team because the hallmark of a great leader is that they develop great leaders! The other reason for developing your leadership team in reflective practice is that it models it as ‘good practice’ for the rest of the organization. If it is happening at the top, it will most likely flow to the other parts of the organization as well. In terms of accessing a useful set of ‘Leadership Self-Assessment’ questions, Professor Amy C Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, provides a useful toolkit in her book ‘The Fearless Organization’.
As the head of Curriculum in a large school, I would meet with my faculty heads every second Tuesday. The Agenda was always emailed out two days ahead of the meeting and always included ‘professional reading’. Typically the ‘professional reading’ would be the focal point for our reflective practice at the start of the meeting. In other words, the meeting was not about giving copious amounts of information that could just as easily be given in an email, the meeting itself was part of their own Professional Development as leaders and as teachers.
There are good Psychological reasons why reflective practice is a must for people in leadership roles and indeed, for anyone wanting to improve themselves on a daily basis. According to Psychologists Daphne Hewson and Michael Carroll (2016) in their book ‘Reflective Practice and Supervision’, we operate with a conscious and a non-conscious mind. “Our conscious mind is like the tip of an iceberg. Its knowledge is ‘explicit’ in the sense that you are aware of it and able to articulate it, but most of our functioning happens below the surface. The knowledge of our non-conscious mind is implicit or tacit in the sense that we’re not aware of what it is and can’t articulate it or manualize it. Some is conceptual (assumptions and values), and some is procedural (e.g. the ‘seat of your pants’ skill of balancing a bike). The non-conscious mind can’t be taught explicitly, it learns by experience…Once the non-conscious mind learns to do something one way, it is very difficult to get it to unlearn it” (See p.93).
It, therefore, makes sense that to help the non-conscious mind to learn through experience, a reflective ‘modus operandi’ is highly appropriate. Why? According to Hewson and Carroll (2016), the non-conscious mind is best explored through inference and that means focusing on four key things.
- Pay attention to emotions.
- Pay attention to evocative words and passing thoughts
. Payattention to what you actually do . Payattention to what other people notice.
Daphne Hewson and Michael Carroll (2016) Reflective Practice and Supervision. Hazelbrook: Mosh Pit Publishing (pp.97-98).
This has implications for someone applying for and being interviewed for a job as well. For example, a question at an interview might be: “How do you maintain yourself professionally and personally?” An appropriate response here would be, reflective practice.
The point to remember is that our broader culture has valued, indeed almost put a premium on ‘thinking fast’ as a way of maximizing efficiencies and achieving goals. That does not always guarantee that it is the most effective approach or the one most responsive to the cultural permutations within the organization. Nor does it guarantee that the leader and their team have developed personally and professionally because of the experience. There is more to leadership than simply getting through a ‘To-Do List’ each day. The reality though is that ‘inner-work’ is essential for an adaptive leader in the twenty-first century. All of this, of course, is based on the leader’s answer to one simple question: What type of twenty-first-century leader do you want to be, reflective or reactive? The response will make all the difference, in a world in need of outstanding leaders!