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The Reflective CEO - Part II

Originally published in Businessworld. India's largest-selling business magazine.


The number of emails I received to the piece ‘The Reflective Leader’ (Businessworld, 4 April) exceeded the usual average by a huge margin. The article also received the highest number of hits on our website beating Thriving without Paranoia’ (BW, Nov 22), which held the previous record. Far more surprising was the unusually high page-views from continental Europe (we have a fairly sophisticated website user tracking system in place).

In the article, I had talked about the need for the senior executive to routinely take out the time to make sense of the marketplace, competitive and organisational activities so that he can look “beyond what he sees, beyond today. Reflection also helps him do things better today… the successful business warrior uses reflection as a means to know which battle is worth fighting. But most importantly, it helps him understand how the next war will need to be fought; to make sure that too is won”.

Considering the comments and queries, here are some clarifications:

Not A New Leadership Style: There is the ‘charismatic’ style, the ‘quiet’ style, the ‘servant Leader’ style. Probably somebody has also advocated the ‘cowboy’ or the ‘Zen’ styles. To each his own. Having said that, the effective leadership style is more a function of the needs of the particular situation in which the leader is placed (see ‘Which is the Best Leadership Style?’, BW, April 11).

When I advocate ‘reflective leadership’, it is not intended to be a pitch for the latest approach to being a leader. Great leaders can be gregarious or reserved, planners or spontaneous, ‘big-picture’ thinkers or detail-oriented. Whatever be the style he favours, the amount of experience, or his position in the organizational hierarchy, the practice of reflection is for every leader. It helps the chief executive of a multibillion enterprise as much as it does the young executive starting his or her career. The only difference being what each reflects on.

Beyond Knowing: When you actively practice reflection, you move from knowing things, to understanding them. To highlight the difference between these two states, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner shares an incident in his book Dealing With the Unschooled Mind, about his daughter who called him frantically from the university, distraught about how little she understood Physics, in spite of getting good grades. He offered the usual advice any one of us also would; getting more help from faculty, sticking to it, and finally, not worrying too much about the grades because understanding mattered the most. Upset, she replied: "You don't get it dad, I've never understood it." The gap between what passes for understanding, and ‘genuine understanding’ remains great according to Gardner. Reflection helps you make that leap, successfully.

Doing Matters 
The late Marvin Bower, the man who single-handedly created the profession of management consulting, once remarked, “ideas are not enough. They do not last. Something practical must be done with them.” Reflection practised for the sake of reflection is nothing more than armchair intellectualism. What is the point of understanding if we don’t use that?

Incidentally, at Anoova Consulting, our guiding philosophy is: “The great end of knowledge is not knowledge, but action.” Understanding things helps you do them better. Doing things helps you understand them better. You cannot have one without the other.

Unsurprisingly, the thinkers also think better when they do. A recent example is of Harvard Business School. Till the late 70s, HBS faculty were not permitted to consult. Their focus was deemed to be research and teaching. After the restriction on offering consulting was lifted, the quality of research, especially that related to concerns of practising managers improved markedly. Getting into the messy world of organizations, helped them look at the world from a different lens. It provided the academician with the insights to develop a better perspective of organisational issues. I am sure it contributed positively to their classroom interactions also.

Here, I must also take a moment to mention the not-so-apparent downside of the ‘single-minded focus’ approach that we have been brought up to revere. Focus is good. But only if you are focusing on the right things. The practice of reflection helps you make sure that it is indeed so. The marketplace and the organisation evolve. They don’t remain static. So do the things that we need to focus on. With active reflection, we too can get to see what truly requires focus at each point in time.

To put it in another way: you are on an adrenalin rush, playing the fast and furious game. Reflection helps you understand and get to where the ball is going to be next. But more importantly, whether you are in the right playing field to begin with. Is football your game, or is it basketball?

To help you get started on the path to active reflection, let me suggest two very simple introductory exercises:
Every night before you turn off the lights, think about these two things. Give about ten minutes to each:

  • First, list out the decisions that went off well in the day. Ask yourself why, for each.

  • Then carry out the same exercise with things that didn’t go so well and the reasons that they didn’t.

Sounds simple? Try it and see.

To offer a caveat, the entire exercise will yield results when we take an honest, realistic look at the day’s events. They way they actually happened. As I have often written, “There are two ways of looking at life. The way it is; or the way we will like to believe it is” (Why you must shoot the messenger?, BW Aug 23; ‘Thriving without Paranoia’, BW, Nov 22).

We begin our journey with getting to understand what is happening in the world around us. Soon we graduate to understanding what will. Which helps us correctly define the path our lives and our organisations need to take. All we need is to regularly disengage from the everyday fire-fighting, and reflect.


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More Articles


The Reflective Leader - Part I

A ‘satisficing’ solution  Are You Treating the Cause, or the Symptoms to solve your organization's crises?  

The Burden of Tradition  

Thriving Without Paranoia  

Making Your Big Idea Work

Effective Strategy is Often Indirect  

Why You Must Shoot the Messenger?  



This article was originally published in Businessworld, in Wide Angle, the monthly guest column by Mohit Malik of Anoova Consulting’s Strategy and Leadership Practice.

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This article can also be accessed at the Businessworld website. Businessworld. India's largest-selling business magazine.

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