Leaders Develop Through Action and Reflection

Developing Ourselves

Do something…and reflect. Growing as a leader is a continuous “action and reflection” cycle, with development happening iteratively over time.

What kinds of experiences develop you most as a leader?

Actually leading, of course!

And because you can learn the most in difficult and uncomfortable experiences, then you want to do things that shove you outside of your comfort zone. I like the phrase “threshold experiences” to describe the moments when you are dancing at the edge of your capabilities. When you lean into it like that, the likelihood for significant growth as a leader increases ten fold.

Seeing your development through this lens may encourage you to step onto the floor and to take on challenging leadership experiences: Have the difficult conversation with your boss, hold your subordinate accountable, raise your hand to take on the tough assignment or to be immersed in a different culture.

And for those of us who prefer to stay inside our comfort zones, there’s good news: we can’t. Life throws threshold experiences at us whether we want them or not. Without looking for them, we all face a difficult boss, an impossible task, a role we have not been trained for, or a personal crucible like a health challenge.

But challenging experiences aren’t enough. Systematic reflection on our experience is the crucial second part of the framework. A little girl, “being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said:

‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’” (Wallas, The Art of Thought, 1926)

The little girl knows intuitively that saying out loud what she thinks she thinks allows her to interact with it and to hear it as if for the first time. Karl Weick found Wallas’ interaction to be a recipe for sensemaking (Sensemaking in Organizations, 1995). For me, the girl’s response clarifies how latent learning – key, game-changing insights – crystallize when we take time to reflect.

So how can I “see what I say”? Conversation with others about our work is one way to help us reflect. And written reflective journaling is another technique proven to help us process and learn from our experiences.

The results are astounding. According to Gino and Pisano, for example, spending 15 minutes at the end of the workday in written reflection and conversation about our work can improve what we learn by 25% (HBR, “Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance”). Think about that—a 25% increase in effectiveness with this one practice.

Developing Others

Don’t stop with yourself. Teach this framework to your team and then help them leverage the action/reflection cycle. Ask your team members what their last challenging experience was and dialogue about it. Ask them what their next challenging experience will be.

By their nature, threshold experiences can increase stress and tension for individuals and teams. Leaders—and anyone on the team—can help balance that with an appropriate level of support; they can create a culture in which people feel safe enough to take risks and to be honest with each other. This requires trust, vulnerability, and authenticity.

And following Gino and Pisano’s example, why not carve 15 minutes out of the workday for written reflection and conversations about what we are doing and learning?

So, what are you waiting for? Do something…and reflect!

By yourself. And with others.