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Leadership professionals, writers and scholars refer to “leadership development” rather than “leadership training.” This begs an obvious question: why do they do that?

The reason is that learning about leadership is, in point of fact, developmental. Therefore, peaks and valleys are normal when studying leadership. When learning leadership becomes difficult, when it dips into one of its inevitable valleys, a key tool for climbing out of that valley is reflection. In a leadership development experience you are learning the art of taking action in a complex system. How can self-reflection reveal what needs to be done in organizational change as the work of leadership?

Self-reflection creates revelation by providing access to more data.

Picture this: you are involved in an incident in which you thought you did nothing wrong or inappropriate. Upon further reflection you realized that you had caused discomfort or inconvenience for another person. Gradually, you felt some remorse or guilt over your own conduct, and decided to apologize. Perhaps you wrote a formal letter of apology, or picked up the phone and called the other person. Reality now looked different and a new set of opportunities opened up for you. The same function occurs in organizational change.

We have busy lives. We don’t always take time to reflect on what we are doing. We go from one task to the next without pausing to consider what is truly important. Momentum can help us move forward with an important new task, such as an exercise program or a project. However, forward momentum that is not tempered by contemplation can blind us to meaningful questions about our choices, our conduct, and the use of our time.

  • What is the impact of what I’m doing on the world around me?
  • Is this where I really want to go or am I just getting there by automatic pilot?
  • Why should I accomplish a task one way and not another?

These types of questions require self-reflection.

Self-reflection allows us to pause and consider what we have done and where we are headed.

I often refer to a concept I call “showing up.” If you show up in life only to “look good” or to “win” you are not going to learn, or grow, or lead. Because, inevitably, learning will happen through stumbling, getting outside of your comfort zone, perhaps even looking bad. You need to choose whether or not you are going to show up looking to succeed but ready to stumble or fail. We are surrounded by a society that continuously reminds us not to take risks. Risks are bad, risks are dangerous: save your money for an emergency; get an extended warranty on your purchase; don’t drive in bad weather. And make sure you have insurance – on your car, your home, your flight, your health…on your life…

The way to deal with those situations requires a little bit more daring than merely playing it safe. It is true that sometimes playing it safe is a good idea: seat belts, safe sex, bicycle helmets and backing up your hard drive all seem like good ideas. The problem is that when security dominates our lives it leaves no room for the unknown.

Learning is about change, and change is about venturing in open waters by taking risks.

Imagine the new you or the new organization you want to create. I am sure you can envision your own process of change as the outcome of being clear in your purpose and taking time to reflect on the context and then take actions that involve risk in that context.

If you want to have an impact in this work stop trying to “look good” and make “reflection,” “risk,” and “purpose” your key words.

Reflection + Risk + Purpose = Learning, which leads to meaningful change. True transformational learning, as opposed to the “window-dressing” kind of learning, is what leads to innovation.