The Most Effective Leaders Are The Most Reflective Leaders

My family gets up early on Christmas day to open presents. It's a badge of honor if you're awake earliest. This year it was my father. I soon followed.

We nodded to one another but didn't speak. He sat in his chair under a cone of light and wrote in silence. I grabbed my journal and sat next to him to capture my morning thoughts.

This is what Pugh men do. I recall my grandfather sitting in his chair with a yellow legal pad writing down ideas for sermons. For him, for my father, and for me there exists a pre-dawn readiness for the thought or idea that might matter. I've grown to value written reflection a great deal. It's helped me define who I am, articulate my thoughts, make decisions, and grow as a leader.

When I am leading a workshop or speaking with a group I'll often say the most effective leaders are the most reflective leaders. It's true and it resonates with almost everyone. And it sounds great because it kind of rhymes. But over the years many have approached me after a session to say they have a difficult time with reflection and personal writing. They don't know how to begin, but they wish they could develop a reflective writing practice.

2018 taught me two practices which have helped me capture thoughts and wisdom in a way I'd not yet experienced. The results are rich and surprising and inspiring. Maybe they can be helpful to you or someone you know who’s hoping to grow. Both approaches involve letter writing - which I think is romantic and wonderful in and of itself.

The First Practice

Listening to the wisdom of your own voice

The first practice is borrowed largely from Julia Cameron's brilliant writing guidance in The Artist's Way. It's a rhythm of question and response.

Think of a question you're asking yourself about your work, professional direction, a relationship, a conflict, perhaps an inner struggle, or about a thought or feeling you can't quite define.

Once you’ve got your question write it down, but ask it as your more immature self who is seeking guidance. This allows you to feel freedom to ask whatever it is you’re hoping to understand. For me, I'm "Little Reagan" - which I abbreviate as "LR" in my journal.

Here's how it looks:

LR: Why do I continue to feel like I'm being annoying or overbearing when sharing my ideas with the world? How do I gain more confidence in my own voice and believe I can add value to others?

The next action is simple and easy to do, but if you're uncomfortable writing or a wee bit skeptical, you might need to suspend disbelief for a few minutes and just commit to the process.

After writing your question, simply write "Answer" - and then proceed to write a letter to yourself answering the question(s) you just asked.

It will look something like this:

Answer: There have undoubtedly been individuals who have said unhelpful things about you and your thoughts in the past. The truth, however, is those folks are in the minority - and even if they weren't, what does it matter? What are the consequences? Do you really want to hide ideas that may be helpful to others for fear of...

And it builds from there. Write as long as you're inspired to write. What I've found with this process is once I begin writing the answer it snowballs into all kinds of affirmations and wisdom from within myself I've never accessed before.

While in college I read Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch; in the introduction he says he just began writing the book one day because he was inspired. So he started to write and when he didn't know what he would write next, God moved his hand and provided the language.

I was always skeptical of that idea - and probably still am - but as I've practiced this process one thing continues to be true: we already have access to more wisdom and courage and understanding and knowledge and answers inside ourselves than we realize. And when we participate in the practice of getting out of our own head and writing a letter to ourselves about an unresolved issue or question, the results can be surprising, encouraging and inspiring.

The Second Practice

Finding deeper purpose through your writing

The second practice is quite similar, but I've found it to be even more powerful in providing deeper purpose, inspiration, and urgency to my reflective writing practice.

I use this technique when trying to figure out how to communicate an idea to a group of people but I feel like something is missing. Have you ever encountered a situation where you want to make sure you communicate the full weight and importance of an idea with both compassion and intensity, but can't summon those feelings? This process helps with that.

It involves writing a letter you'll never deliver to a loved one.

I first discovered this when writing an email to a former student who asked me some challenging questions about navigating young adulthood. As I wrote my response I thought, "My goodness, this stuff is great - this could be a blog or workshop for twenty-somethings."

Now when there's an issue I'm trying to unravel in my own life, or when creating written content for others, I pretend I'm writing a letter to one of my younger brothers. I've seen a marked difference in the purpose, intention, honesty, and feeling of a piece of writing when I visualize the recipient as someone for whom I care deeply.

As you practice this technique, dive fully into writing a letter to whomever you choose - meaning actually write a letter to that individual. It will keep you honest and help you write a great first draft full of purpose. Then you can go back though and remove any personal language you need to omit. The goal is words on the page to edit and improve later - not perfection!

I continue to believe the most reflective leaders are the most effective leaders, and remain convinced it’s consistently reflective people who make greater progress, live more presently, have more influence, and lead deeper, more intentional lives. Sometimes a shift in the way we look at our own thoughts and experiences is all we need to help us grow and resolve our own internal challenges.

Make some time for yourself in a chair early tomorrow morning and let me know how it goes!