How Self-Reflection Can Improve Your Leadership

By Brett Beasley

A study shows how you can get in touch with your ideal leader self and turn your leadership aspirations into action—all while you drink your morning coffee.

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When Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar in 2014 for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, he took a moment in his acceptance speech to thank “my hero.”

That person turned out to be a version of McConaughey himself. He explained:

When I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say "Who's your hero?" And I said, "I don't know. I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks." I come back two weeks later—this person comes up and says "Who's your hero?" I said, "I thought about it. You know who it is?" I said, "It's me in 10 years."

So I turned 25. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and goes, "So are you a hero?" And I was like, "Not even close. No, no, no." She said, "Why?" I said, "Because my hero's me at 35."

So you see every day, every week, every month, and every year of my life, my hero's always 10 years away. I'm never gonna be my hero. I'm not gonna attain that. I know I'm not, and that's just fine with me because that gives me somebody to keep on chasing.”

While many who heard the speech accused McConaughey of narcissism, there is a kernel of good advice behind his seemingly boastful story: Psychological studies show that an inspiring vision of what we could be at our best really does motivate us. And while each of us has some mental image of our best self, we don’t all choose to visualize or activate that mental image. And as a result, some of us benefit from it more than others. In a groundbreaking 2001 study, Laura King (U. of Missouri) found that reflecting on one's best possible self could provide an immediate source of happiness that could last two to three weeks and could even have positive effects on one's physical health.

According to a new study by Remy E. Jennings (U. of Florida), Klodiana Lanj (U. of Florida), Joel Koopman (Texas A&M), and Gerry McNamara (Michigan State), self-reflection is especially important for anyone seeking to improve their leadership. They show that visualizing and reflecting on what they call “your best leader self” has the power to make you not only behave more like a leader but also gain both confidence and more clout as a result.

Self-Reflection as a Path to Better Leadership

Jennings and her colleagues demonstrated the power of reflecting on “your best leader self” through a study they conducted using a group of nearly 80 working professionals who were also enrolled as weekend MBA students. Using a method called “experience sampling,” the researchers checked in with participants three times a day to get a sense of how self-reflection was shaping their daily lives. Some mornings they asked a group of participants to visualize their best possible leader self using the following prompt:

“Think about your best possible self in a leadership role sometime in the future. Imagine that, in this leadership role, everything has gone as well as it possibly could for you. Think of this as the realization of the best possible leader you could ever hope to be.”

To make the participants’ visualization clear and concrete, the researchers asked them to write 2-6 sentences about their skills, admirable qualities, achievements, and anything else that would help them become their best possible leader self. And to provide a comparison that would allow them to single out the effect of this exercise, the researchers asked a control group to reflect on inanimate objects in their house or in their office.

It turned out that people who reflected on their best possible leadership self got a burst of positive feelings—so much so that it changed their behaviors. They reached out to help others at work more frequently. And they also were more vocal in sharing their long-term vision for work-related projects. These participants came to see themselves as more leaderlike as a result, and they also saw themselves as having more clout (i.e. more power and influence) in their organization.

Put it in Practice

Look Inward.

Jennings’s study is part of a larger trend in research that looks at leadership, not just as a formal role or a spot in a hierarchy, but rather as a “state of being.” To see what this new trend has to offer, think about the question, “What would it take for you to become a better leader?” Or, if you aren’t a leader yet, ask “What would it take for you to become one?” Most people want to be leaders—91% of millennials said they aspire to leadership in a recent survey. But most feel there is a significant gap between their current self and the leader they want to become. Most say that in order to become a better leader, they need “more resources,” “more followers,” “more authority,” or even “a better office,” “a more impressive title,” and “a bigger salary.”

These answers have something in common: They come from outside oneself. And while these can be important, many researchers would point out that when we focus too much on them, we can miss the power we all already possess to make ourselves better leaders. Entrepreneurs sometimes talk about what they call the “bird-in-hand” principle. It states that entrepreneurs don’t succeed by creating out of thin air but rather by seeing the value in their existing strengths, knowledge, and network. Something similar is true of leadership. Instead of waiting for outside resources and validation to arrive, you can start by looking inward and recognizing who you can be at your best.

Define Yourself as a Leader.

One of the most interesting findings of Jennings’s study is that self-reflection works whether or not you have a formal leadership position. The participants in the study were a mix: With an average age of around 37, about half had formal leadership roles while the other half did not. But Jennings and her colleagues found that this formal status made almost no difference. Established leaders and aspiring leaders benefited in much the same way. There is a saying that you should “Fake it ’til you make it.” The process of becoming a better leader doesn’t require you to “fake it.” Rather, it requires you to strive for your ideal while being authentic. It’s less about putting on a show and more about plotting a path toward a realistic possibility.

Make Self-Reflection a Habit.

Taking time to reflect on and visualize your best self as a leader clearly pays off. But it’s not something that a leader can do just once. It works best as part of a daily routine. The good news is that a little self-reflection goes a long way. Participants in Jennings’s study took an average of less than eight minutes to complete their best possible leader self activity each day, and its effects still evident 12 hours later. Jennings and her colleagues suggest, "an employee could reflect on their best possible leader self while drinking their morning coffee and thereby reorient their day to focus on embodying behaviors that help them get closer to their envisioned best possible leader self."

“I dwell in Possibility,” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson. Research suggests that all leaders could benefit from dwelling in possibility a bit more—in the best possibility that exists for them as a leader. And it also shows that doing so is the first step in converting that possibility into reality.

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