Action and Reflection

Developing Ourselves

Do something…and reflect. Growing as a leader is a continuous “action and reflection” cycle, with development happening iteratively over time.

What kinds of experiences develop you most as a leader?

Actually leading, of course!

And because you can learn the most in difficult and uncomfortable experiences, then you want to do things that shove you outside of your comfort zone. I like the phrase “threshold experiences” to describe the moments when you are dancing at the edge of your capabilities. When you lean into it like that, the likelihood for significant growth as a leader increases ten fold.

Seeing your development through this lens may encourage you to step onto the floor and to take on challenging leadership experiences: Have the difficult conversation with your boss, hold your subordinate accountable, raise your hand to take on the tough assignment or to be immersed in a different culture.

And for those of us who prefer to stay inside our comfort zones, there’s good news: we can’t. Life throws threshold experiences at us whether we want them or not. Without looking for them, we all face a difficult boss, an impossible task, a role we have not been trained for, or a personal crucible like a health challenge.

But challenging experiences aren’t enough. Systematic reflection on our experience is the crucial second part of the framework. A little girl, “being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said:

‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’” (Wallas, The Art of Thought, 1926)

The little girl knows intuitively that saying out loud what she thinks she thinks allows her to interact with it and to hear it as if for the first time. Karl Weick found Wallas’ interaction to be a recipe for sensemaking (Sensemaking in Organizations, 1995). For me, the girl’s response clarifies how latent learning – key, game-changing insights – crystallize when we take time to reflect.

So how can I “see what I say”? Conversation with others about our work is one way to help us reflect. And written reflective journaling is another technique proven to help us process and learn from our experiences.

The results are astounding. According to Gino and Pisano, for example, spending 15 minutes at the end of the workday in written reflection and conversation about our work can improve what we learn by 25% (HBR, “Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance”). Think about that—a 25% increase in effectiveness with this one practice.

Developing Others

Don’t stop with yourself. Teach this framework to your team and then help them leverage the action/reflection cycle. Ask your team members what their last challenging experience was and dialogue about it. Ask them what their next challenging experience will be.

By their nature, threshold experiences can increase stress and tension for individuals and teams. Leaders—and anyone on the team—can help balance that with an appropriate level of support; they can create a culture in which people feel safe enough to take risks and to be honest with each other. This requires trust, vulnerability, and authenticity.

And following Gino and Pisano’s example, why not carve 15 minutes out of the workday for written reflection and conversations about what we are doing and learning?

So, what are you waiting for? Do something…and reflect!

By yourself. And with others.

Follow Tony P. Burgess on Twitter to stay connected. tonypburgess on Twitter


Talking About Books

Professional reading is a critical part of being a leader, especially when tightly integrated with action.  When we weave together what we are reading with what we are doing, the rate at which we learn can increase dramatically.

To make reading even more impactful, talk about what you are reading.  It is talking about books–with a constant eye for how it applies to our current work situation–that takes reading to the next level. This is in contrast to how many of us have experienced professional reading–as an individual activity.

As I engage with leaders, I like to recommend books that have made an impact on me.  And because I know the power of talking about books, I recommend that teams pick a book to read together.  Yes, like a book club!

When I was in the Army, we created something called the “Pro-Reading Challenge”–which boiled down to: Read a book and talk about it with your team. So simple, and yet so impactful.  It is the kind of simple leader development tool that any leader can put into practice.

This week I got an exciting glimpse into the impact of the Pro-Reading Challenge through a Twitter conversation.  Paul G. posted a message to his former company commander Joe B.:

Not long ago we were discussing this book in a small falafel stand in Mosul [Iraq]. Tomorrow, it’s my turn!

While commanding an Army unit in Iraq in 2010, Joe picked a book, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, and talked about four chapters with his officers.  This, my friend, is leader development in action.  In the middle of a combat deployment!  Joe replied on Twitter with a picture of the four chapters highlighted in the table of contents of his copy of the book.  Paul replied with:

It was those 3 or 4 chapters that changed my outlook on studying history!

And here Paul is, five years later, reading and talking about the same book with his own team of leaders.  Creating time for talking about a book made the unit more effective in combat, it inspired a passion for studying history, and it role-modeled a leader development approach that Paul is now emulating.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick a book and engage in conversation about it with your team.  Focus on how it applies to your work.

And, have fun!

What Do You Want Most In A Leader?

This is a quick leader development exercise that always makes a positive impact.  It’s perfect for a “Lightning LD” (that’s a quick, yet impactful, leader development session with your team), and can be done, for example, over lunch.  Ask your team members:

  • What attributes and/or competencies do you want most in a subordinate leader? [Brainstorm out as many as you want, but then select the top 3-5 in rank order]

Have them think and write on their own (individually).  After a few minutes, shift their focus and ask:

  • What attributes and/or competencies do you want most in a boss? [Brainstorm out as many as you want, but then select the top 3-5 in rank order]

After a few more minutes, have a conversation.  Ask them to share their lists and to explore their thought process.  Facilitate a conversation about the similarities and differences across your team.  And draw attention to someone who has a different list for a subordinate and a boss.  Use that observation to dig into the why behind the lists being different.

Wait a day or two and ask your team several follow-up questions:

  • Given what you said you value most in a subordinate and boss, how would your current boss assess you as a subordinate?
  • How would your current subordinates assess you as a boss? In other words, turn your own criteria around on yourself.
  • And, how are you putting this into practice?

Have a conversation, and see where it goes. The greater challenge really is not to decide on the “right” top five attributes/competencies; rather, it is to act on them–to put them into practice.

For more insight about how you can use this idea with your team, read two previous blog posts describing a similar process with a group of West Point cadet leaders:

(1) What Do You Want In A Leader, Part 1

(2) What Do You Want In A Leader, Part 2

Leader Challenge: Dynamic, High-Energy Leader Development

On 27 September, 144 platoons of cadets met across West Point to conduct the first “Leader Challenge” workshop of the year. In each platoon, the cadet platoon leader and an officer mentor worked together to facilitate a platoon-level session that featured round-robin, small-group conversation about a real-world, high-stakes, ambiguous problem faced by a second lieutenant in Afghanistan.

The “Leader Challenge” methodology is a two-part process: (1) Online Interaction; (2) Face-to-Face Workshop — all centered around a challenging, concrete experience that an actual leader faced.  You can read more about the Leader Challenge approach to developing leaders in this ARMY Magazine article (PDF).

Participant Feedback

Sometimes, participant feedback gives you the best feel for the value of an experience.  These are some responses after this particular Leader Challenge:

“I feel like I got to check out of being a cadet and check into being a PL for an hour. It was awesome!”

“I was really excited last night when I walked down the hallway and overheard a group of yearlings standing around the CCQ desk debating some courses of action for the scenario. They asked me if they were going to be able to do more Leader Challenges, and then we discussed the scenario for a little while.”

“The Leader Challenge had the best content and material in any PMEE lesson I have seen at West Point.”

“I am very pleased with the new system, and it really puts the control, tempo, and discussion of PMEE back into the cadets’ hands.”

“I was amazed at the energy and the deep level of discussion that was taking place. This was relevant & meaningful development.”

“Everyone loved the small groups of four, and the rotations kept the conversation lively.”

“It really forced cadets to think. It pushed them outside of their comfort zone by having to share and discuss the actions they would have taken, but it also helped them see the variety of possible answers as they listened to what their peers had to say.”

Things to Sustain in Future Leader Challenges

Upon reviewing the feedback, the top two most mentioned “sustains” were:

(1) the small-group format with rotations (high energy) in which one facilitator stays at the table and all other cadets move to a new table (all new people at the new table);

(2) the real-world relevancy of the content. Cadets appreciated wrestling with tough issues in the context of the profession they are entering.

I will close out this blog post with a few more participant comments to reinforce how positively the high-energy format is received:

“The LC concept with small group discussion and round robin is a winner. More cadets participate and they universally agree that small group sessions are the most productive part of the program.”

“The rotating groups kept the dialogue going. It allowed the groups to gain multiple perspectives on the problem.”

“I love the small group idea. Cadets talk so much more in groups of 3-5.”

“The discussion atmosphere, instead of a lecture.”

“This format is by far the best and most well received by the cadets.”

“I want to sustain the different rounds switching up the small groups. I felt that by getting different people’s take on the situation was good and allowed us to see the scenario from different points of view.”

The Pro-Reading Challenge: One Achievable Step

Corey James and I wrote an article published in the February issue of ARMY Magazine focused on leveraging professional reading–and the Pro-Reading Challenge–as a tool for developing leaders.

The Pro-Reading Challenge boils down to talking about a book with your team at least once a year.  This challenge is for leaders out there who wants to take action to develop their leaders and improve their organizations’ effectiveness.

Article Excerpt:

“…the Pro-Reading Challenge is one way for Army leaders to take action when it comes to leader development and lifelong learning, helping leaders to overcome the feeling that leader development is overwhelming, or just “pie-in-the-sky stuff.” It is one specific action leaders can take and point to as evidence that they are, in fact, “committed to developing their subordinates.” In the process, leaders create momentum and foster a culture of learning. Once you taste genuine leader development, you want more of it. Perhaps most importantly for the health of our profession, lieutenants who take the PRC are much more likely to incorporate professional reading into their leader-development plans when they are in command. In this way, you pay it forward, creating that third-generation-leadership (3GL) effect: “Success [from the 3GL perspective] is not developing great leaders. Rather, success is developing great leaders who themselves have a personal vision to develop great leaders.”