Leadership is about overcoming the natural.
There’s nothing natural about excellent leadership.
In our natural state, if someone attacks us, we get defensive. If someone hurts our feelings, we disengage. If conflict is foreign to us, we avoid it. If someone questions us, we get insulted. If someone thinks differently than we do, it’s easy to avoid them. If someone makes us extremely angry, we yell at them. All these things feel natural and good, but they are all bad for groups and organizations. Our natural tendency is to take a road 180 degrees from excellent leadership.
To become excellent leaders, we become aware of the traits within ourselves and the actions we take that are detrimental to our group. We work on changing ourselves into someone better. We practice and practice. When we have been working for a while, the person we have become has risen above the natural state. There is a new “naturalness” to this higher level of behavior. It eventually becomes second-nature.
But as in all aspects of life where we work on self-improvement, this isn’t the end. Now our “natural” self should become subject to our reflection. As we look further, we will see a new set of suboptimal traits and behaviors. There are still things about us that are not good for our group and our organization. The new natural is now something to be overcome, as we try to become a better person.
Key to this process is self-reflection, which may not be second-nature. One way to develop it is to keep a journal. It works best when we describe not just what happened today, but rather the reasons we chose a certain thought and a certain action. Examining those things objectively on paper allows us to challenge ourselves to identify better thoughts, behaviors and reactions to use the next time a similar situation arises. This begins to disconnect the natural reaction, and programs us to be ready to hit the “pause button,” and be more intentional and less reactive.
Journaling is structured reflection time. Such dedicated time is critically important for leaders because they frequently do not get valid, candid feedback. Reflection becomes a partial substitute.
Another way to gain reflective insight and overcome the natural is to share with a few close team members the areas that you are working on changing, and to invite them to help you. Because after all, some things about our thoughts and behavior are easy to change, but others will be a struggle. When we struggle, we need help. Those trusted team members, when they see the natural behavior you are trying to change, can remind you. That feedback is invaluable in this effort.
Challenge yourself to go beyond your natural, learned tendencies. Even if something that you are doing feels like the right thing, it may not be so. Just because something feels natural, that doesn’t mean it’s good.