How to Become a Better Leader Through Personal Reflection

Justin Constantine (left) received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Justin Constantine (left) received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps. (Courtesy photo)

I was recently fortunate enough to be accepted into the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, which is sponsored by the presidential libraries of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Needless to say, our classes were taught by some heavy hitters, the guest speakers are deep thinkers and leaders in their fields, and our first module was incredibly inspiring. And because I learned so much there, I want to share some of that knowledge.

Up until now, I haven't spent much time on personal reflection, in either a personal or professional capacity. This is probably due to sheer laziness, although I have heard for a long time how important it is, and that in fact many of our founding fathers and national leaders engaged in this practice.

And not only do I think that personal reflection will help you grow as a leader in your business and organizations, but it will also be of great value to our veterans who are transitioning out of the military and figuring out how to integrate successfully into the private sector.

Here are some key takeaways related to personal reflection, with a particular emphasis on our transitioning service members.

The Importance of Being Self-Aware

During the first module of the program, we toured the White House and the National Archives, and then had a special dinner about 100 feet away from the Declaration of Independence.

We had the pleasure of President George W. Bush's former secretary of commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, providing us some of his thoughts about leadership, and in his mind, being self-aware is an integral part of that. Although his advice was common sense, many of us might not take the time to implement it regularly.

Specifically, you should know as a leader what you are and what you are not. You do not have to make all the decisions and be the smartest person in the room. In fact, you should spend more time listening and surround yourselves with people who are better than you are.

Leaders who are self-aware know that they are not good at everything, but when they know their strengths and weaknesses, they surround themselves with diverse teams who can do the things that they cannot.

For veterans in particular, this is important as you try to identify the skill sets you developed in the military and apply them to private-sector job announcements and career opportunities. Spending time to reflect on your personal strengths and weaknesses will help you identify which jobs would be best for you; the last thing you want to do is accept a job that is not a good fit or where you really are not comfortable. It is a smart practice to seek out mentors and others who have gone before you to help you in this process.

Good Reflection Requires an Intentional Practice

This is a critical point, because if we do not carve out time to reflect on what is going well and what is not, we probably just will not do it. Up until now, I have failed to focus on this, but now I have committed to spending 15 minutes quietly reflecting in the morning before I open my laptop.

Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Well, I want to be excellent in what I do, and I imagine you do, too. To get started, identify exactly what it is that you want to spend more time reflecting on, and then determine how you can weave it into your daily life.

For me, I want to focus more on personal connections, because I feel that I have drifted away from a lot of people who are important to me, and it is too easy to get caught up in electronic communications. Through reflection, you can determine if what you are doing really matters.

Transitioning service members or veterans who have already left the military will probably want to focus on the steps they need to take to prepare themselves for a successful transition. Personal leadership is critical here, because this is something that only you can really do. Perhaps spend time each day thinking about the resources that already exist to help you with your resume, interviewing skills and networking opportunities.

Reflection Requires You to Pay Attention

Personal reflection and being self-aware require a concentrated effort on your part. Being observant of not only what is going on around you, but also what you are doing, is not necessarily a simple task. It is mandatory, though, if you want to effect change on a personal level.

Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing said that, "The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."

This sounds complicated, but essentially when we fail to notice what we are doing (or not doing) and how our actions affect our organizations or what is going on around us, we cannot change those actions and move forward. Being observant, thoughtful and open-minded will go a long way in your own forward progression and that of your organization.

In the military, we often do not have to concentrate on our next position or the path to success. We often have senior leaders around us providing that support, and it is common knowledge what courses to take, what scores you need and how you will be personally evaluated.

That safety net and support system do not always exist in the private sector, so if you fail to notice what makes some veterans more successful, you are doing yourself a disservice. Transitioning to the private sector is a significant change and will require a proportionate amount of effort on your part.

Justin Constantine is an inspirational speaker, leadership consultant, entrepreneur and TED fellow who serves as a liaison between the military and corporate communities. He is senior adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes Campaign and is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Justin also serves on the board of directors of the Wounded Warrior Project and co-founded the Veteran Success Resource Group. He received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps.

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