Critical self-reflection is difficult to acquire, but extremely important for leaders
By Dirk Verburg
For several reasons I love reading autobiographies of leaders in business and politics. The first reason is plain curiosity: the possibility to take a look behind the stage of well-known events. The second reason is because these autobiographies provide a unique opportunity to understand decision making processes from the perspective of the decision makers. Why did they take certain decisions in specific situations? Were they aware of certain developments? From whom did they obtain advice? What was the role of important stakeholders? etc.
For this reason I ordered ‘What happened’, the book in which Hillary Rodham Clinton looks back at her campaign for the US presidency in 2017. I wanted to read this book because earlier this year I also read ‘Shattered – Inside Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign’. This is a fascinating book about Hillary Rodham Clinton ’s campaign, written by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.
According to the authors, important factors why Hillary Rodham Clinton ’s campaign failed were:
- A divided campaign team without a clear division of responsibilities and command structure
- The inability to create a positive and compelling message
- A failure to grasp and address the underlying sentiment of the electorate
- Insufficient capability in establishing a personal connection with voters
After reading this book I was of course very interested in Hillary Rodham Clinton ’s own view on her campaign. Whilst reading the book it soon became clear to me that her view on the campaign was completely different than the authors of Shattered. Hillary Rodham Clinton hardly expresses any self-criticism and blames her loss almost exclusively on external factors, e.g. the Republican efforts to exploit the Benghazi investigations, controversy about her email server, sexism and misogyny amongst the voters as well as the alleged Russian attempts to influence US public opinion. The key message of the book could almost be summarised as: ‘If I would have to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same’.
The importance of self-awareness
According to a survey amongst 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, self-awareness is the most important capability leaders should develop. The reason is that ‘Executives need to know where their natural inclinations lie in order to boost them or compensate for them’.
In a recent HBR post, Tasha Eurich states that ‘…people do not always learn from experience, that expertise does not help people root out false information, and that seeing ourselves as highly experienced can keep us from doing our homework, seeking disconfirming evidence, and questioning our assumptions’. This was probably also true for Hillary Rodham Clinton. In ‘What Happened’ she writes: ‘I thought that of all the people who might run, I had the most relevant experience, meaningful accomplishments, and ambitious but achievable proposals, as well as the temperament to get things done in Washington’.
As Anthony K. Tjan states: “It is self-awareness that allows the best business-builders to walk the tightrope of leadership: projecting conviction while simultaneously remaining humble enough to be open to new ideas and opposing opinions.”
Self-awareness requires critical self-reflection and honest feedback from others. Unfortunately, research has shown that the more senior the leader, the more they are likely to overestimate their own skills and abilities. The explanations for this phenomenon are twofold. First of all, the more senior a person’s role is, the less feedback they will receive from people more senior than themselves. The other reason is that (in)direct reports of leaders often fear that (negative) feedback might have a negative impact on their careers.
Failures provides unique development opportunities
According to economist and systems scientist, Kenneth Boulding, humans only learn from their failures and not from their successes.
So, critical self-analysis why a decision turned out to be wrong can lead to new insights, which in turn can result in taking different decisions in similar situations in the future. It can also lead to asking others for help, especially if one realizes that decisions in certain areas often do not work out (a pattern). Therefore, leaders should embrace failures as unique opportunities for their personal development, and for the development of their organization.
In his famous poem ‘If’, Richard Kipling writes the following: ‘…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster – And treat those two impostors just the same; …’. The underlying thought of this poem is that most people have a tendency to contribute successes to themselves, but failures to factors outside their control.
Business leaders are no exception: they are being promoted because of their performance, and fired due to the short sightedness of others. The title of the article in every Harvard Business Review issue titled ‘How I did it’, says it all. A project is a success ‘due to our focused efforts’, or ‘the strategic vision of our leadership team’. However, the launch of a new product is a failure ‘because the market is not ready yet’ and a bankruptcy is the fault of ‘a government which failed to support us because it has no strategic vision on the importance of our industry for the economy as a whole’.
Honesty would dictate that our successes are often enabled by favorable factors beyond our control, and failures are often (at least) partly the result of poor decisions we have taken ourselves. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”.
Therefore, blaming failures on circumstances outside our control, and looking back in anger deprives us from opportunities to learn. It is much better to take the following advice from Nelson Mandela: ‘I never lose. I either win or learn’.
Leaders need to ensure they have access to trusted advisors
If leaders find it difficult to draw lessons from their own mistakes, they may have to seek constructive feedback from trusted advisors. Trusted advisors, for instance executive coaches, can help leaders to understand why they have taken certain decisions, analyze why these decisions did not work out, which thoughts and actions the leader took contributed to these failures, and which ‘markers’ they should recognize and act upon when facing similar situations in the future.
After all, learning should not be optional for leaders. The reason for this is very simple: the ability (or lack thereof) to learn (or not), has a direct positive or negative impact on the organization they are responsible for…
(Photo Credit Hillary Clinton: Gage Skidmore)
Originally published January 23, 2018 on LinkedIn