This is the one key trait that all great leaders share

Businessmen cast shadows as they cross a street in Tokyo's Marunouchi district

Self-reflection ... a quality that ensures you regularly question your assumptions Image:  REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Daniel Dobrygowski
Head, Governance and Trust, World Economic Forum
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All the leadership courses taught at all the finest business schools in the world are completely worthless.

Unless, that is, you are reflective about how the lessons taught in those classes can change how you think, how you feel and how you act. This reflection and the self-awareness that it requires is difficult and can make you feel exposed, but it’s also necessary in order to become a better leader and manager.

Everyone has had a manager who seems immune to change. Although sitting in an office festooned with executive certifications and graduate school diplomas, that manager seems unable to effectively lead even a small team. In fact, his or her self-regard and confidence remain unshaken in the face of a mountain of countervailing experiences. At the base of this inability to improve as a leader is an inability to change and an inability, or unwillingness, to reflect on his or her experiences in order to bring about change.

Despite our inclination to think otherwise, this inertia is not a sign of the manager’s laziness or bad moral character. Rather, it is simply a component of human nature – one that you must overcome in order to absorb the lessons of any leadership or management insight.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, advocates for active self-reflection as a component to becoming a better leader.

At its heart, self-reflection requires that you question your assumptions and your habits and ask whether they are useful in dealing with the world around you. Without this work, management and leadership training is merely window dressing. In order to truly improve as a leader, you must do the hard work of questioning some of your most deeply held assumptions and beliefs about what has made you successful.

No wonder, then, that Petriglieri says: “There’s very serious business behind what seems like insignificant change.”

This business of change is so serious because of what Petriglieri describes as our Big Assumption – this is some belief, which has become implicit in one’s thinking, that has led to success up to a certain high level (i.e. manager or CEO) but will be counterproductive if one continues it.

One example could be this: “If I keep my head down and don’t ask for help, but turn in quality work, I will succeed.” That’s true, and will lead to great success in any organization up to a point. However, beyond that point, this Big Assumption becomes severely limiting. It's the kind of thinking that would lead a manager to seem aloof to his or her subordinates, leaving them feeling unmoored and the manager ineffective.

However, the fact that this Big Assumption may have led to your success makes it very difficult to move beyond it when the assumption is no longer effective. This is where self-reflection becomes vital. An active process of self-reflection helps us to understand that we are making an assumption in the first place and then what to do about it. Petriglieri offers a framework to help reflect on the assumptions we make and experiment with them.

  • The first step is recognizing the assumption: to understand that you are making an assumption, that is, to recognize that your view of the world and your own behaviour may not be entirely accurate. Once you’ve identified the assumption, it is important to know where it came from, to write the biography of the assumption and look back at how it was, at some point helpful or even the key to your current success.
  • The next thing to do is to actively look for facts that run counter to the assumption. In our example above, that means looking for situations where keeping your head down and not asking for help actually doesn’t work to your advantage. Build an internal database of this un-confirming information that you can use to challenge your own assumptions. All these efforts help to increase your ability to examine your own thoughts and actions, to question them and put them in context. More briefly, this helps you to practise your self-awareness.
  • After these identification steps comes the hard part, experimenting with your assumption. This is hard because it requires you to step out of your own head and actually test your ideas with others. As Petriglieri says, “self-awareness is a contact sport”. So, just as we build up our assumptions through our interactions with others, we need to interact with others in order to test those assumptions and, for those that hold us back, to break the assumptions down.
  • Next, design an experiment to test this assumption – this could be as simple as going out of the way to actually ask for help, in our example, and see if that also yields a positive result. Finally, continue to test your assumptions and refine your thinking in the context of working and interacting with other people.

This work is hard, and in terms of exposure it can be scary. But in order to internalize new ideas and become an effective leader, we have to let go of the assumptions holding us back. We cannot do that alone and we cannot do it without self-reflection.

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