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

BG Howard Prince

Talking Leadership With Brigadier General (Retired) Howard Prince

I talked leadership with Brigadier General Howard T. Prince this week in Austin, Texas. He was so engaging that the two hours felt like 15 minutes. BG Prince is the founding head of West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership (1978-1990). He had extensive combat leadership experience in Vietnam and has been thinking about and teaching leadership for a lifetime.  I’ll share his response to one of the questions I asked him.

Question: If you only had time to teach three concepts to mid-level leaders with no previous formal leadership training, what would they be?

BG Prince:

1. Self-Awareness. It is crucial that leaders know themselves, and they need some basic frameworks and tools to speed up this process. We give a lot of personality and talent assessments these days, but for what? What do you do with your awareness? Well, for one, if we know who we are, how we naturally behave–our default–then we can look for good fits. Where can I contribute my best? What roles allow me to leverage my natural talent? Moreover, as I understand myself better, it opens my eyes to understanding others better and how to employ them in ways that brings out their best. The Gallup organization tells us that leadership boils down to discovering your employees’ strengths and then putting employees in roles that leverage their strengths. Of course life is more complex than that, but self-awareness is absolutely crucial. Moreover, self-awareness can lead to seeking developmental opportunities to get better in areas that will be needed in future responsibilities. Self-knowledge simply gives you more choices.

2. Motivation. If we are talking foundational leadership for mid-level leaders, understanding human motivation is easily in my top three. Most of us do what “feels” right or what has been role-modeled for us. And, unfortunately, a lot of that is just plain wrong–and even undermines the behavior we want. Part of this includes understanding the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. So many of our “techniques” are based on flawed assumptions that employees require extrinsic motivation. But the fact is that human beings want choice and to be part of the decision-making process. When I was the Department Head of BS&L at West Point, I learned to ask instructors what they wanted to teach. Instead of telling them what they were going to teach, based on my flawed assumptions, I tapped into their intrinsic motivations and, in the process, fostered a deeper level of commitment in the faculty. Look for opportunities to involve your team in meaningful ways. They will do their best in return and often amaze you with things you never knew they could do.

3. This leads me to Building Teams. If you can get the job done alone, do it. In other words, don’t create a team because it is in vogue. But if you have a problem or a mission that requires more than one person, you need an effective team. And most work today is being done in teams. We need to provide our leaders with foundational understanding of group dynamics and how to set the condition for teams to form quickly and to perform effectively over time and amidst rapidly changing, complex conditions. Understanding how teams develop and knowing what kind of leader actions are useful at different levels of development helps the team get better as a team, which is, or can be, more than the sum of the individual inputs.

People everywhere crave purpose and meaning in their lives. Since most of us spend so much time at work, it is important for leaders to help team members find purpose and meaning; not just so the organization gets better, but so the people involved develop as human beings.

Colonel Prince

Colonel Howard Prince, the founding head of the West Point Department of Leadership.

When I was a newly appointed Department Head at West Point, I had the privilege of attending a conference where the late Warren Bennis was speaking. He read us an excerpt from a Robert Frost poem titled, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Bennis was at the leading edge of introducing work as a meaningful human activity. As he was reading, I felt rusty gears begin to turn in my head. That night, I dug through books in my home library and found my college freshman English Literature book of poems. And there it was, that same poem, with the margin notes of a 17-year-old West Point Cadet Prince. The poem had moved me deeply so long ago and may have influenced my decision to make a career of military service in the US Army.

If I had more than three concepts, or perhaps woven through all three, I would focus on purpose and meaning and the human side of leadership: really knowing our people and recognizing signs of stress and burnout and growing positive cultures that help people accomplish more than we ever would have imagined possible. –BG Prince

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

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

Shackleton’s Call

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who famously led an expedition in 1914 to cross the Antarctic continent.  Their ship, “The Endurance,” was aptly named given the absolutely epic challenges the 27 crewmen overcame on the trek.  

When Shackleton was preparing for the mission, he published an advertisement in the London newspaper: 

“Men wanted for hazardous journey.  Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.  Honour and recognition in case of success.”

I love this!  It appeals to me.  It connects with a part of me that doesn’t often get called upon.  What can we learn from this?  Is there opportunity for leaders today to create this kind of a call?  What would that even look like?

What do you think?

If you want to learn more about Shackleton, get this DVD, narrated by Liam Neeson.  It is incredible!  Absolutely inspiring!  And it is a great catalyst for conversations about leadership.

High School Leaders Tell Stories of Leadership in Action

On Tuesday, 1 November, we ran a Leadership in Action (LIA!) workshop for a group of exemplary high school students who are participating in the West Point sponsored “Frances Hesselbein Student Leadership Program” this week (Coordinated by Melanie Dodge & the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership).

HighSchoolLeadershipExercise(2)The students came prepared to share a story about a person—a story that is an example of leadership in action. During the workshop, participants told their story three times, and they listened to as many as 9 stories from others. Pictured below, the participants placed a hand on the person whose story resonated the most with them.

The exercise brings out underlying assumptions about leadership, and it helps clarify what we value and the kind of leader we want to become. One of the insights that crystallized for the participants is that they each have valuable stories to share and that, perhaps, one role of leaders is to create the space and time for people to share their stories.
We concluded the workshop by talking about specific, very practical, practices that we want to cultivate—practices that, over time, will enact the values and leadership principles that we think are so important. I think we all walked out of the experience more Positive, Inspired, and Energized than when we started!

If you want to learn more about leading your own LIA! workshop, read the callout on page 4 of this ARMY Magazine article (PDF) and read two previous blog posts: August 24, 2011 and April 5, 2011.

Thanks again to Melanie Dodge, the coordinator, for inviting us to contribute to this great program.

Personal Reflection: This was the first time we have done a LIA! exercise with young leaders like this (High School Juniors), and we were pleased with how well it worked out. Their stories were about exemplary teachers, coaches, and parents–and one especially good story was about an older brother who befriended a mentally challenged peer and, in the process, received more than he gave. The one thing we did differently with this one is that we asked the students a week ahead of time to come prepared to share a story. In other words, they had a solid heads up; in all our previous LIA! workshops, participants had to think of a story on the spot. There are pros/cons with both ways, but with this age group we thought it would be more productive if they had some time to think about it.

What Do You Want In A Leader, Part 2

For over twenty years, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have been asking people all over the world what they want in a leader. As reported in their exceptional book The Leadership Challenge (see page 24), based on the input of 75,000 people, the qualities of a leader people willingly follow include: Honest, Forward Looking, Competent, and Inspiring.

Based on their research, the authors go on to lay out a compelling model for leadership. And if the book feels a little too hefty with your current work load, start with their shorter book, The Truth About Leadership.

So, how does this jibe with what we experienced in the “Leadership in Action” workshop?  The big surprise from our workshop was that we (36 cadet leaders) did not collectively value accomplishing the mission (competence), or vision (forward looking).  In our discussion afterward, individuals objected because, after all, they only had three votes and there are so many things that are important to leadership; however, what was clear as we stepped back and looked at the big picture was that we, collectively, did not value certain things.  Collectively, we had 108 votes.  Collectively, we did not value vision/looks ahead, develops subordinates, competence/accomplishes the mission, or team building (builds a cohesive team).

This deserves some thought.  What is behind this?  Could it be that at West Point we socialize ourselves to see leadership a certain way?  Could it be that because we are not experienced yet — and therefore do not see ourselves as “competent platoon leaders” yet — we undervalue the importance of competence and developing subordinates?  What would happen if we changed the question.  What if, instead of asking, “What do you want in a leader?” we asked, “What do you want in a battle commander?” Would that change our emphasis?

What Do You Want In A Leader, Part 1

Coming out of the Leadership in Action (LIA!) stories we told earlier this week, we identified a set of characteristics that the leaders in the stories exemplified.  In other words, we developed a set of themes that were present in the stories that we told about leaders in action.  We then voted on the factors that we thought were most important to each of us personally.  Each person got 3 votes to cast.  It’s really interesting to see how it played out:LIA1


Numbers in green show the number of votes received:
LIA 5What jumps out at you?  Any surprises?

Leadership in Action Workshop at West Point

This week, we kicked off a 3-month course at West Point called MX400: Officership.  This is a capstone course for seniors that focuses on the character, competence, and leadership skills officers need to lead Soldiers in battle–to accomplish the mission at least cost–along with a range of topics that are important to officership.

For our first class meeting, we ran a Leadership in Action (LIA!) workshop.

Have you witnessed leadership?

This is the question we asked the cadets.  They each answered the question by telling a one-minute story of leadership in action (LIA!)—giving each other concrete, personal examples of real-life leadership.  After 3 rounds of storytelling in small groups, we finished the workshop by talking about the themes that emerged.  The stories gave us a new glimpse into what is forging our understanding of what it means to lead.

Want to learn more?

  • Read LIA! stories and learn about how to run a workshop in this ARMY Magazine article (PDF).  If you are like us, reading this article will call to mind your own stories, and it will evoke in you a desire to lead in a way that is worthy of a story yet to be told.
  • Also, see the April 5 blog post describing the Leadership in Action process in full.



Positive. Inspiring. Energizing.