Three Ways to Strengthen Leadership through Self-reflection

by Diane Berenbaum

Many of us are overwhelmed with too many phone calls, emails, meetings and “to do” lists. As you consider where to focus your attention, how many times do you stop to:

  • reflect on what's driving your behavior

  • analyze your larger goals

  • consider what got you into this situation

  • figure out how you might avoid it in the future?

According to Harry Kraemer, Clinical Professor of Strategy at the Kellogg School and former CEO of Baxter International, the usual reaction is, “I'll just go faster." However, that's mistaking activity for productivity. And productivity demands self-reflection.

Kraemer would know. For thirty-seven years, he has made a nightly ritual of self-reflection. "Every day," he emphasizes. Stepping back from the fray and his role of managing 52,000 employees, Kraemer avoided "running around like a chicken with his head cut off."

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 example they want to set. "Self-reflection is not spending hours contemplating your navel," noted Kraemer. "It's…what are my values and what am I going to do? 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, and eight self-examination questions to help you move forward.

Three Ways to Strengthen Leadership through Reflection

1) Know Your Priorities—and Where You Fall Short

Anybody in a managerial position has two key 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, 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 growing successfully had diverted resources from their core operations to establish large business-development departments. At the time, Baxter had a much smaller department. After reflecting on the matter, Kraemer realized they "needed a larger team of people who could fully dedicate themselves to this issue."

After priorities are defined, it is important to follow with action. So, Kraemer writes down 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 holds himself accountable and "is not living in some fantasy land."

2)  Minimize Surprise

Members of the United States military are excellent role models for self-reflection, Kraemer says. They forecast and plan obsessively in order to do one thing—minimize surprise. While leading Baxter, he oversaw multiple chemical-processing and manufacturing plants around the world. He wasn't surprised if there was a fire in one of those plants. Quality, safety, and compliance standards are essential to minimizing the possibility of disaster.  

He also recognized the need for self-reflection: "We were self-reflective enough to realize that it could happen. So, when it did happen, we weren't confused. We dealt with it."

Self-reflection doesn't just mitigate out-of-the-blue disasters; it also prepares leaders for disappointments. As head of a publicly traded company, Kraemer knew that not every quarterly performance was going to be positive. "To assume that performance is going to go up every single quarter—that's not really logical. And by the way, when the drop does happen, what are you going to do about it?"

Preparation has the added benefit of reducing anxiety about the possibility of things going wrong, says Kraemer. "What keeps you up at night? I used to say, ‘I have a multibillion-dollar company…' Now I say, ‘Nothing keeps me awake. If it takes me a while to go to sleep, I'll just read another book." And, "The reason many people have trouble balancing their lives is that they have not been self-reflective enough to figure out what they're trying to balance."

3)  Build Stronger Teams.

Self-reflection's effects go beyond the self, Kraemer points out: "If I don't know myself, is it possible for me to lead myself? I doubt that. If I can't lead myself, how could I possibly lead other people?"

Strong leaders, he says, not only practice self-reflection; they also encourage their teams to do so. "I have a responsibility to develop every single person I touch," says Kraemer. And of course, a self-reflective team is a team that has its priorities straight and arrives prepared to deal with any setbacks.

So if one of his employees or students is scattered or unsure, he meets with him or her to establish the value of settling down for a moment, taking a breath, and considering what's important. "If I'm going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I'm going to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection," he says.

Kraemer is adamant that leaders—and leaders-to-be—need to carve self-reflection into their daily routine. It takes only 15 minutes. Let's face it; we all have 15 minutes somewhere in the day: during a commute, while exercising, or drinking a cup of coffee to consider these eight self-examination questions:

Kraemer's Eight Daily Self-Examination Questions
(adapted from

  1. What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?

  2. What did I actually do today?

  3. What am I proud of?

  4. What am I not proud of?

  5. How did I lead people?

  6. How did I follow people?

  7. If I lived today all over again, what would I have done differently?

  8. If I have tomorrow, based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life?

"The reason many people have trouble balancing their lives is that they have not been self-reflective enough to figure out what they're trying to balance," noted Kraemer. "You might say, ‘My spouse is really important to me.' But do you spend time with him/her? Or do you assume you're too busy? Is spending time with him/her a priority, or not?"

The good news is that reflection can lead to finding more time for what is important.

Still convinced you can't fit self-reflection on your calendar? That may be an excuse to avoid an "uncomfortable exercise," Kraemer says. "There could be a pretty big difference between what you say is important and what you're actually doing."

So take time to pause and reflect. Notice the positive things in your life that you may take for granted. You just might be amazed at what you'll learn about yourself.

As Margaret J. Wheatley (American writer and management consultant) noted,  "Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful."

"Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action."

~Peter Drucker, founder of Modern Management

"There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self." 

~Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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