This piece is the sixth installment in a six-part series on leadership character by West Point’s Col. Eric Kail.
Some say experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. Perhaps. But I say experience is only as valuable as what we do with it.
Gaining wisdom from an experience requires reflection. In thinking back on the significant events of my life, experiences good and bad, it was the act of assigning meaning that has made all the difference for me. Reflection requires a type of introspection that goes beyond merely thinking, talking or complaining about our experiences. It is an effort to understand how the events of our life shape the way in which we see the world, ourselves and others. And it is essential for any leader.
Reflection is what links our performance to our potential. It is the process of properly unpacking ourselves as leaders for the good of others. We can’t apply an abstract construct such as leading through crisis without experiencing what crisis does to us individually and collectively.
The concept of “reflection” may sound self involved, but it’s actually just the opposite. By not reflecting, we engage in a narcissistic rationalization that makes us feel better about the events in our lives yet keeps us from learning from them. There is a natural tendency to attribute all our successes to ourselves and all our failures to forces beyond our control.
So where do you start? I find reflection often comes best through the help of a mentor who will ask seemingly simple questions, like: “What could you have done better, and why?” Or, “Did you do anything wrong?”
A little story: One time, I was very angry about being held responsible for consequences I considered beyond my control. I vented to a mentor about how unfairly I had been treated, and he responded by saying, “I see. This is really not your fault, is it?” I immediately felt comforted, and then he set the hook. “Eric, what would taking the blame off of you do for your soldiers?”
I didn’t have to answer him. My anger turned to shame as I realized I had placed myself smack there at the center of importance. If my mentor had told me I was being selfish, I would have left his office angrier and even more isolated. Instead, he enabled me to reflect on how leadership is about moving forward for the good of those we lead, not about assigning or avoiding blame for our own self interests.
Encouraging reflection in your organization starts by being a good mentor yourself. I would caution, though, that assigning mentors doesn’t work well—it’s awkward and will only lead to frustration. Instead, be aware of those conversations in which others ask for your advice or want to run something by you. That’s how mentorship begins. And like any other relationship built on trust, it begins slowly.
If you are fortunate enough to have someone seek out your mentorship, listen and challenge. No pithy advice will engage them in reflection as well as a simple, probing question can. Help them explore and assign meaning to their experiences. And remember, they came to see you about them, not you.
Col. Eric Kail is an Army field artillery officer who has commanded at the company and battalion levels. He is the course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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