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Leadership Starts with Self-Reflection


I remember early in my career being asked to write an article on a complex topic. I had few details and little direction. I did my research and poured my heart into it only to have it completely re-written, except for one sentence the manager saw fit to use. I had clearly missed the mark but wasn’t sure how or why, not even after reading the final version. I felt inadequate as a writer and that I had let my manager down.  I came to realize the failure was not my writing skills but that I had no idea what the expectations were, and I got no feedback or corrective coaching.  It was a missed opportunity to learn.  

We know the role of the leader is to lead teams to results that positively impact the organization. So when team members miss the mark, overlook important details, deliver sub-standard work, make mistakes or fail to see critical connections, we are naturally drawn to those deficiencies. The impulse is to quickly fix the problem and find a solution or, even worse, hand out blame or punishment.     

The trouble with fixing and solving is not only is there no meaningful learning involved for the team member, but chances are also good that we are jumping to the solution or fix without clearly defining the problem and understanding the ‘why’ behind it.  And the problem with blame is it lives in the past, assumes people are the problem, and is often assigned before all the facts are known. Blame is an accountability and trust killer and, if the follow-on action is unfair punishment, then you also kill the learning.  

So, what if there was another way? When as a leader you are struggling to get the quality of work or the results you expect, instead of reflecting on the deficiencies in others, what if you started with self-reflection as a first step? 

It’s not easy; self-reflection is hard work. It’s front-end loaded and may not be the natural starting point if your first instinct is to look outward rather than inward.  

We’ve talked about self-awareness as being the most important leadership trait. Self-reflection is the path to self-awareness.  It requires leaders to carve out time to ask and answer questions that explore assumptions, gaps and opportunities for learning and create solutions or processes to address. It invites us to ask, “Have I created the container and set up the processes to get the results and performance I am looking for?”  Self-reflection is critical for leadership development and it’s a practice that can strengthen team relationships.     

Here are five key self-reflective questions (and even more questions within them) you can ask yourself when your team members are missing the mark or you are not getting the performance and results you expect.     

1. Do I understand the real challenge?   

Albert Einstein said, “If you give me an hour to solve a problem, I’ll spend 55 minutes on figuring out what the problem is, and then I’ll spend 5 mins on solving the problem.” It is easy to make assumptions or tell ourselves stories based on what we see. More often than not, identifying the real challenge takes some effort. There are a host of reasons why people might not be meeting expectations. Lean into curiosity to identify the underlying challenge.      

2. Have I defined the standard I want to see?   

Someone recently shared that their boss was always telling her to be more strategic, but she had no idea what that meant, let alone how to put it into action.  We make assumptions that people understand what we mean, yet the likelihood of them having a completely different interpretation is high because each of us are informed by different experiences, values, beliefs and knowledge. Are you clear in your mind about what good quality looks like? Do you know what specific results you are seeking? Is there clarity on the actions and behaviours you want to see or don’t want to see?    

3. Is there clarity and alignment around my expectations?  

Having defined the standard, have you vividly communicated what ‘paint done’ looks like to the team? Paint done, an expression I learned in Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead book, refers to providing colour, context, explanations, examples so the team can clearly understand your expectations and can ask questions to sharpen the picture and know what is required. Clarity is vital and is a pre-requisite for accountability.  

4. Have my team members taken accountability for their deliverables?  

Interestingly, accountability cannot be delegated; it needs to be accepted. No one is going to take ownership and show accountability for something they are not clear about, buy into or believe won’t succeed.  To transfer the ownership to a team member, it is imperative you provide whatever is missing or they will remain a spectator. Here’s some questions you can ask them:  

  • Is this clear? Are any questions coming up?  
  • Do you have what you need to be successful?   
  • Do you feel you can take ownership of this task?  
  • What might get in your way? 
  • What can I count on you to do and when will you deliver it?  
  • How will you let me know if something gets in your way?   


5. Am I coaching them to the standard as they learn?   

Learning new behaviours is not instantaneous, no matter how clear you have been. It will take time before the team are fully meeting expectations and are knocking it out of the park.  As a leader, your role is to help them get there. It will require you to be consistent with the standard, provide feedback and recognize progress.  And rather than telling people what to do, a more sustainable approach to transfer the learning is to apply a coaching mindset to inspire people to think through challenges, find their own solutions, own their decisions, and take them forward. The hallmarks of a coach approach are open-ended curiosity questions and feedback in the form of observations.  

  • What have you tried?  
  • What else can you try?  
  • Where can you get more information?  
  • How will you know when you get there?   
  • What is another way of looking at that?   
  • I notice your hesitation, what’s behind that?   
  • You sound more confident about the process, what has shifted for you? 
  • What is your next step?   

Self-reflection starts with leading with the assumption of generosity which, as Brene Brown describes, is believing that people are doing the best that they can. It also requires us to trust the team we’ve hired, hold them capable, and commit to developing and coaching them to success.   

It is time well-invested and a path to getting the consistent performance and results that meet the standard.   

 Looking to help your leaders bring more of a coach approach to their leadership. Check out our Coach Leader workshop 

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