Some leadership skills are self-evident: vision, an ability to think strategically, the drive to bring about a change of culture, for instance. All of these take effort and forethought, so it’s helpful for leaders to take some time to think things through.
But in a new landscape of interconnected and digital communications that can mean we are always on call, finding the space to think clearly isn’t always easy.
And thinking time is not just hard to come by – some leaders shy away from it because it looks a lot like doing nothing.
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner has said that he spends 90-120 minutes a day, simply “reflecting”; and being at the helm of a company bought for US$26.2bn by Microsoft in 2016 and with 5,700 full-time employees in 30 cities worldwide, Weiner should know a thing or two about leadership skills.
The National Preparedness Leadership Initiative is a Harvard University-based think tank that promotes and teaches leadership skills to public and federal organisations, and those in both the private and not-for-profit sectors.
Its director of research, Eric J McNulty, regularly speaks about leadership best practice, and teaches his students the benefits of what he calls “journaling”.
There is nothing new about it; he simply urges you to spend some time – “as little as ten minutes a day”, he says, if you are really time-poor – writing down your thoughts using pen and paper.
Why not simply do that at your screen or on your phone?
“Writing something down by hand,” says McNulty, “triggers a part of the brain known as the reticular activation system” that means you pay greater attention.
It is also said by some to increase your powers of retention; “tapping keys,” says McNulty, “doesn’t have the same effect.”
It allows your brain to find time-out to think in a more creative way without a constant barrage of data.
Start with three simple questions, he advises:
- When did I feel strongest today?
- When did I feel weakest?
- What does this tell me about myself?
When you are becoming used to setting aside time in this manner, you could make the exercise more organisation-focused, he suggests:
- When was my team at its best today?
- When was it at its weakest?
- What does this tell us about ourselves, our customers or our markets?
As time goes on, you can become more ambitious with your journaling, he says. Why not set monthly goals and targets? Start keeping meeting and project notes. If items that you planned to achieve remain on your list, ask yourself why. Did you fail to deliver – or should they not have been on the list in the first place?
And keep space – and time – for reflection on what it all means, and to record gratitude or satisfaction with those things you did well.
It will help you to become a better leader, argues McNulty.
Try it yourself: see if you are made of “the write stuff”.