Mirror, mirror on the wall... who's the most self-aware of all?

When the mornings become crisp and the clock goes back an hour, I always start to feel a little excited about the change in season.  It means the Easter holiday is coming, a time I always associate with hot chocolate, cold mornings, and ‘cosiness’. 

For me, it also signals family time, a long weekend of being together, often a lot of us, in one house… and if previous years are any indication, a high likelihood of rain (thanks Melbourne!).

Sometimes all that cosy togetherness pushes our carefully maintained family ‘roles’ (and parenting styles if you have children) a little over the edge. Each day, those closest to us hold up mirror after mirror, reflecting our behaviour back at us. With our children it is often by the ever-effective medium of their own behaviour. Feeling a bit short tempered and snappy? Hello small person reflecting short tempered and snappy straight back at me!

Spending extended time with family and close friends can end up being a little like living in a permanent ‘house’ of mirrors – you know, the kind we normally only visit at an amusement park for a couple of crazy minutes.

Self-reflection brings our own behaviour into focus

Going into the Easter break, I’m taking a moment to reflect on what my behaviour says to others – whether that be at work or at home. We can have the best intentions in the world, but it’s what we do that matters. 

Here are two easy self-reflections we can practice:

Self-reflection 1:

In his article Like it or not you are always leading by example, Michael Schrage, research fellow in Digital Business at MIT, outlines the ‘killer’ question we can ask leaders or (I would suggest) ourselves:

How do you lead by example?

Can you think of instances and anecdotes where you believe your actions have set ‘standards’ for others. It’s important that we know, explicitly, whether we are emphasising some actions over others, or ignoring some of our own behaviours that we suspect are having a detrimental impact on those around us. As Schrage points out, if we can only think of examples that emphasise customers, that can be as distortive as thinking of examples that never do. 

Inconsistency in our leadership is experienced by others as hypocrisy. We can’t have one rule for ourselves and another for our team. 

Self-reflection 2:

There's a reason the platitude 'actions speak louder than words' has never fallen out of favour. 

What are you emphasising by what you do? What values are you celebrating by your actions?

I’ve written before about how the way we treat suppliers sends a message to our staff, our customers and the world at large about what we value. Equally, when we turn up late to meetings we send the message that no one’s time is more important than our own. When we demonstrate ‘impatience’ through our body language – sighing, looking at the clock when someone is speaking – we are communicating disinterest and disrespect. 

We get the culture we deserve – at home and at work
In his article Leaders can shape company culture through their behaviours Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Redhat and author of The Open Organisation, notes that ‘Culture is learned behaviour. We create our organisational culture by the actions we take; not the other way around.’

He goes on to say: ‘It’s easy to think that building a culture is about other people’s behaviours, not how you act as a leader. But I believe that culture change begins when leaders start to model the behaviour they want the organisation to emulate.’

It reminds me of the famous Gandhi quote – ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, with the emphasis on ‘Be’.

Manfred Kets De Vries, professor of Leadership Behaviour and Organistional Change at INSEAD graduate school, writes about leaders needing a high level of emotional intelligence so they can understand and manage their own and others’ emotional responses.

Kets De Vries notes that: ‘Understanding how supervisors, co-workers, direct reports and clients perceive us can give valuable insights into our leadership behavior and help us become more effective leaders.’ That means being able to recognise, for example, that actions we believe reflect decisive or confident characteristics may come across as controlling or arrogant. 

It’s just as much about what we don’t do, as what we do
We can claim ignorance, but if we chose to be a leader, we also have a responsibility to keep our eyes open and take action, based on our values. Many of us have worked in environments were issues are not openly discussed.  Remaining silent is taking an action. It’s choosing to be complicit.  It brings to mind political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke’s famous quote: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

We sometimes think that our actions go unnoticed by others, or that we can ignore what is happening ‘over there’, because it’s not in our area. We tell ourselves we have little power to change things, we are just another drop in a large, corporate ocean. Or perhaps we are just having a bad day and that’s how we explain our actions. But the truth is, it all starts with us. Our behaviour sets the tone for the day, every day. By what we choose to do, and what we choose to ignore.

To be an effective leader we need to be able to look in all the mirrors held up to us.  Whether by reflecting deeply on our own behaviour, or being open to the ‘mirrors’ that are held up to us via feedback from others – feedback that’s communicated in their behaviours and interactions as much as in what they say.

There is a wealth of information available to us, if only we are willing to look in the mirror.

I'd love to hear your perspective on what and how we can learn about leadership away from the workplace – please comment below. And if you'd like to reflect with me again please sign up for my weekly Not Just Another Newsletter

Jules SmithComment