Keeping a Leadership Journal

A leader’s unique perspective is an important source of creativity and competitive advantage.

Gaining access to your own insight isn’t difficult; you simply need to commit to reflecting on a daily basis.

Let art ignite your imagination.Art invites leaders to go beyond the frantic busyness of life. Viewing paintings and other forms of art offers possibilities to experiment with new perspectives. If I really focus on a painting, what do I see? If I connect what I’m seeing with my current situation, what new vantage points does the painting reveal?

This is one of the few business- or leadership-focused articles I’ve read in recent memory which really hit home for me, so much so that I thought it worth sharing here with a few of my own thoughts.

Perhaps the biggest point in the article is that “Writing online doesn’t provide the same benefits as writing by hand. So buy a real journal.” — phenomenal advice which I could not agree with more.

Daily Reflection on Leadership

It has been more than 10 years since I graduated from Loyola University Chicago and started working “real” jobs. My position now is that of a “senior” developer, which places me in the position of not only building a software product (the hard skills for which I have experience and training) but also mentoring junior team members and contributing insight for product direction.

From this perspective, I view my job role to include both functions as a technical expert and team leader. However it’s important to note that not all leaders have the same role; I’m certainly not at the top of the food chain in my organization, and my leadership role differs from others in leadership positions.

That point, in itself, is a good concept on which to reflect — but one must create the time and environment so that self-reflection becomes a part of their daily routine.

In fact, self-reflection is one of Harry Kraemer’s 4 Principles of Leadership that I studied in during my recent business leadership course . My takeaway from that lesson on leadership:

…leadership has nothing to do with job function; leadership has everything to do with an individual’s impact. A leader sees a bigger picture. A leader will take a group of people somewhere they would not have gotten on their own.

Therefore time management is a necessary soft skill for all individuals in leadership roles. You cannot allow yourself to:

  1. focus intently on a task for long periods of time — you’ll grow tired and make mistakes
  2. be distracted by simultaneous priorities — you’ll never get anything done

You must find the right balance of periods of intent focus, while allowing yourself breaks to catch your bearings.

Time boxing is one approach that helpe me to be as efficient as possible; it helps me focus on a single task at a time without getting lost in the weeds or overwhelmed by simultaneous tasks. Therefore carving out 15 minutes every day for reflection is pretty simple to accomplish, and taking time for self-reflection is vital for personal and professional growth.

Finding Time for Reflection

People are busy, so finding 15 minutes on any given day can be hard. I simply added an event to my calendar which repeats every weekday at 6am.

Why 6am?

My workday schedule is different than most people’s, and is mainly the result of working remotely. I start my day at 5am and take a long “lunch” break during which I normally exercise. The point here is that 6am is not directly at the start of my day — but it’s early enough that I am able to respond and shape my day around any insight I gained during my 15 minutes of reflection.

Music is my Medium

I wrote one of my own favorite blog posts back in 2009: 10 Albums that Inspire Great Software . And as both a Music major in college and amateur guitar player, this should really be no surprise. Clearly I value Music more than Art, or at least my brain* connects with Music on a deeper level.

*I also have horrible eyesight; this might help to explain my ambivalence towards Art.

In the HBR article, the author writes (of reflection on Art):

Ask bridging questions.What new perspectives does the painting reveal? For example: How is the current situation in the economy (or in my company or team) like this painting? How does the painting’s complexity reflect the hidden complexity in our recent tri-continental merger? In what ways does the painting reveal opportunities we are missing in transitional economies? Let yourself be surprised by the insights that emerge.

I don’t know if I necessarily agree or disagree with that approach, but I know it doesn’t fit my style of reflection. Personally I don’t like to find meaning in Music; I prefer to use Music as a meditation medium, where it effectively calms my senses, clears my thoughts and focuses my attention in preparation for introspection.

What works best for me is to put on some music — it doesn’t matter what — and to simply close my eyes and listen. Allow your mind to focus on the melody, the harmony, the beat. Try to pick out the individual instruments; visualize them as distinct layers contributing to the greater auditory picture.

In short, allow yourself to fully separate from work (and the present).

Then slowly come back to the reflection at hand. Write whatever comes to mind, though I prefer to ask myself questions like What can I do today to practice leadership? .

For me the reflection is all about growth:

  • What can I do to improve myself?
  • What can I to to help my team achieve our goals?

Leadership is Listening

An added bonus (in my opinion) is that listening to music forces you to listen.

One quality that people frequently point out in “great” leaders is that they listen more than they talk. If you would listen to the people you are tasked with leading with the same intensity as you would to your favorite song, just imagine how much more you could understand about them.

And if your team feels like they’re being heard, just imagine how much more effective you’ll be as a leader.

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