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How Self-Reflection Can Make You a Better Leader

As you frantically consider where to throw your attention, are you in the mood to reflect on what’s driving your behavior? To analyze your larger goals? To consider what got you into this situation and how you might avoid it in the future?

Probably not.

“The usual reaction is, ‘Well, I’ll just go faster,’” says Harry Kraemer, clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and former CEO of multibillion-dollar healthcare company Baxter International. But that’s mistaking activity for productivity. And productivity demands self-reflection.

Kraemer would know. For thirty-seven years—ever since he was unexpectedly duped into attending a spiritual retreat with his future father-in-law—he has made a nightly ritual of self-reflection. “Every day,” he emphasizes. Stepping back from the fray is how Kraemer, once the manager of 52,000 employees, avoided “running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”

Instead of constant acceleration, Kraemer says, leadership demands periods of restraint and consideration. Leaders must regularly turn off the noise and ask themselves what they stand for and what kind of an example they want to set.

“Self-reflection is not spending hours contemplating your navel,” Kraemer says. “No! It’s: What are my values, and what am I going to do about it? This is not some intellectual exercise. It’s all about self-improvement, being self-aware, knowing myself, and getting better.”

Kraemer offers three ways that periodic self-reflection can strengthen leadership, as well as some of his favorite prompts.

Know Your Priorities—and Where You Fall Short

Anybody in a managerial position has two basic responsibilities: prioritize what must be done, and allocate resources to get those things done efficiently. “But how can you possibly prioritize or allocate if you haven’t figured out what really matters?” Kraemer asks.

Self-reflection allows us to understand what is important, and focus on what might be done differently.

Kraemer described an experience at Baxter where the company was focused on increasing its growth rate. Other firms were making acquisitions right and left, while Baxter was not. “So we stepped back,” says Kraemer, “and asked, if we want to grow externally, what are other companies doing that we aren’t?” It turned out that the companies that were growing successfully had diverted resources from their core operations to establish large business-development departments. Baxter at the time had a much smaller department. But until taking time to research and reflect on the matter, “we didn’t realize we needed a larger team of people who could fully dedicate themselves to this issue,” he says.

Of course, after priorities have been defined, it is important for action to follow. To prevent a gulf between word and deed, Kraemer writes out his self-reflection each night, creating a record of what he has done and what he says he will do. He also checks continuously with family, friends, and close colleagues to ensure he is holding himself accountable and “not living in some fantasy land.”