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Self reflection leadership


Self-reflection for leaders in five steps 

Published 24 April 2024 in Leadership • 9 min read

Ben Bryant offers a concise 5-step self-reflection guide for leaders, using Carlos M.’s experiences to highlight emotional awareness in leadership.

Carlos is the Marketing EVP of a large luxury and cosmetics firm. He heads up a function that is around 750 people strong. Carlos has also been charged with leading part of a major strategic restructuring — a role that took him to Asia for a four-week secondment a few months ago. Now, back with his team for two months, he realizes that his immediate reports have become misaligned during this absence. He convenes a meeting to pinpoint everyone’s objectives and priorities.

To kick things off, Carlos opens a pack of post-its and asks his team members to jot down their thoughts on three themes: What they are doing well, what they should stop doing, and what they might want to do more. One comment in particular catches his eye. It reads: Be less miserable and negative.

Carlos immediately asks whoever wrote this to elaborate. Bettina is the Head of Research and Development, and the comment is hers. The exchange between them goes something like this:

Bettina: Everyone’s talking in the corridors about feeling overworked and unhappy.

Carlos: What do you mean?

Bettina: Everyone is anxious about the restructuring project; we’re all talking about it. People are talking about resigning, and they feel demotivated.

Carlos: Who’s we? I want to know.

Bettina: I just wanted to raise it, but now I’m think maybe I shouldn’t have. The results of the annual engagement survey are coming out soon. We can wait for them and then you’ll see.

Carlos: (raising his voice) Who’s we? I am shocked that you can’t be more specific. Let’s have it out now. Is this just Bettina’s view, or is it all of you?

Howard: It’s probably just an accumulation of different things, like the reorganization, or perhaps your recent announcement saying there won’t be a salary increase.

Carlos: (with a raised voice) Do you understand how bad this makes me feel? You guys are the most dysfunctional team I’ve ever worked with. Bettina, you can’t just come in here and say all these things without specific facts to back it up.

Having thoughts and feelings is not the same as noticing you are having thoughts and feelings

Carlos storms out of the meeting room. He heads to his office to calm down. Fifteen minutes later, he returns to the meeting room to resume the discussion. But the atmosphere has shifted. Carlos’s team members are more muted. They avoid eye contact with him and with each other. The conversation is peppered with awkward silences. Even though Carlos is purposeful about giving positive encouragement to drive the discussion forward, he’s struggling with his emotions inside. He keeps reliving the exchange with Bettina and finds it hard to listen and stay focused.

What can you take away from Carlos’s story? Does it resonate with you? Have you ever been in a situation like this?

I have met and worked with many executives like Carlos over the years, decision-makers who struggle to hold the intrinsic dissonance — the discordant, contradictory information, inputs, needs, and demands that accompany leadership. These leaders find it hard to manage the emotions and feelings that the responsibility, pressure, and complexity of the role excite.

In this anecdote, Carlos is easily provoked and moved to anger, self-defense, and emotional retaliation. Instead of checking these feelings, he gives them full vent. As a result, his team immediately shuts down. Even when the conversation resumes, and Carlos shares positive signs and cues, he also feels shut down. More importantly, he has lost a chance to listen, learn, and grow as a result.

So, what can Carlos do?

Managing other people successfully and effectively requires you to manage the dissonance of leadership. It requires you to manage the different elements of your identity and yourself that you bring to the role — the aspects of selfhood that serve the role’s and the organization’s needs. Doing these things well is contingent on how good you are at self-reflection.

An anatomy of self-reflection

I think it’s important to be clear about what self-reflection is and isn’t. For a start, being self-aware isn’t necessarily going to make you feel better about complex things. You won’t suddenly stop having difficult or negative emotions. You will find that you are better equipped to normalize your erratic or irrational behaviors. You will be better able to find your balance and clear your mind in difficult situations, and you will be better positioned to help others do the same.

But where do you start?

In my research and my work with executives, I’ve identified five clear steps that you can follow to evolve your process of self-reflection and grow as a leader by doing so. They are:

  1. Notice what you notice.
  2. Feel the emotions before you start thinking about it.
  3. Question your own explanations for your feelings.
  4. Identify your own predictable patterns.
  5. Make intentional choices to accept or change.

Let’s break them down:

Managing other people successfully and effectively requires you to manage the dissonance of leadership

Step 1: Notice what you notice

Having thoughts and feelings is not the same as noticing you are having thoughts and feelings.

Carlos becomes angry, so he leaves the room. Does he leave the room to relieve his anger, or does he leave the room because he notices what is going on because the meeting needs a reset? While alone in his office, he has many negative thoughts about Bettina. But instead of dumping his anger on Bettina, could he try to be more aware of these thoughts and ask himself why he’s having them? Returning to the room, he feels awkward. Again, could he simply notice the awkwardness and sit with it instead of allowing it to drive his attempts to make conciliatory gestures — gestures that don’t land with his team and leave him feeling more shut down?

When we notice something about our external world, we don’t automatically notice how we respond internally or how it makes us feel. Being more purposeful about this is a first step in building your own self-reflection capabilities.

Step 2: Feel the emotion before you start thinking about it

Emotions are an intrinsic part of every human experience. You cannot avoid or deny them, and suppressing them is risky; they will find a way out in one way or another. Sure, you can be mindful about managing your emotions as you experience them and try to stop them from commandeering your impulses. That angry retort or email you so badly want to send can, of course, be written down and saved as a draft. The desire to send our difficult emotions to other people brings us relief. But this externalization often camouflages our inner discomfort — our anxiety, fear, confusion, and frustration. Emotions are important, and they must be processed and understood.

When Carlos expresses his feelings, he should try to determine if Bettina is the only source of his anger. Perhaps his anger is caused by frustration with himself or his confusion about returning to a team that has changed since he left. Perhaps he feels guilty for having ignored the team while he was away. Perhaps he ignored them because he wanted to be appreciated by his boss.

Remember, suppressing emotions — trying to get rid of the dissonance caused by uncomfortable feelings — can impair your logic and rationality. By exploring them, you expose the irrationality of any actions that may follow. You might even end up making decisions to minimize negative emotions rather than working towards the organization’s goals and objectives. For this reason, reflection starts with emotion, not thought. The key is to be aware of what you are doing with these feelings, to try to unearth what you are feeling — and why.

“Self-reflection is also a choice. It is a choice that affects other choices — and it’s a good one to make.”

Step 3: Question your own explanations for your feelings

Understanding your emotional reactions is important, and it’s reassuring. It can give you a sense of manageability or predictability: This makes me feel this way, so next time it happens, I´ll know what to do.

Be wary of thinking like this. Be on your guard not to find the single correct explanation for why you did or said what you did. Instead, try to uncover the multiple things that drive different behaviors and responses. Constantly question yourself: What was I hoping for consciously, and which need was I trying to fulfill? Carlos may have been hoping for a smooth transition back to his team, but perhaps the deeper explanation for his behavior is that he enjoyed having the spotlight on him during his special assignment.

You may find your explanations interesting and illuminating but don’t stay satisfied with any answer for too long. Everything has multiple causes in leadership.

Step 4: Identify your own predictable patterns

As you start reflecting more deeply on yourself, you’re likely to start identifying some fixed ideas or assumptions that you carry with you. You may also begin observing certain habits, routines, scripts, or roles you inhabit over time. These are the more predictable patterns or aspects of yourself that reveal themselves.

Ask yourself to what extent your current experiences mirror previous experiences such as your background or upbringing, say, or family dynamics that might have cast you in a subordinate or dominant role vis-à-vis your siblings or parents. In the case of Carlos, perhaps a desire for perfection has been a script or an archetype throughout his life.

Ask yourself if these habits, scripts, or routines are like anchors that keep you fixed on certain feelings and responses. Then ask yourself if you want to raise the anchor and move on to a different place — or not.

Step 5: Make intentional choices to accept or change

Once you are fully able to reflect on your emotions and your experiences in all their complexity, you face more mindful choices. You gain the ability to be more intentional than impulsive or habitual in your responses and behavior.

Pursuing these five steps puts you in a better position to understand the force that pushes you to react in one way or another — to express anger like Carlos or to suppress it. But, more importantly, you have an interesting choice: You can choose to accept or change the way you behave as a leader. You can choose to be less reactive in trying to contain others, for instance. Or you can accept that this is who you are.

Remember: Self-reflection is also a choice. It is a choice that affects other choices — and it’s a good one to make. If you are aware of your emotions and how and why they emerge, you can start to minimize their impact on your decision-making. You can also decide to start growing as a leader. Self-reflection won’t be easy or comfortable, and it will likely feel ambiguous and dissonant at times. But leadership isn’t easy or comfortable. It’s not meant to be. Leadership is full of dissonance. Reflecting on experiences as they unfold will help you shift from simple solutions to moving toward an acceptance of dissonance within yourself and your role. I believe you’ll be a better leader for it.


Ben Bryant

Ben Bryant

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ben Bryant is a is a highly skilled educator, executive team coach, and speaker. He is Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD in Lausanne and Director of the IMD CEO Learning Center and the Transformational Leader program. He was previously the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership.


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