This year has been a year unlike any other in our lifetimes, individually and collectively. Many of my executive coaching clients are exhausted from the year. Most are well on their way to preparing for 2021. My advice to them is to pause and reflect. This year has taught us that there is much outside our control. What we can control is who we are being and how we respond to what is needed in the moment. These ten questions will help you internalize leadership lessons from this year. They will help you deepen your self-awareness and give you powerful tools for your own leadership in the coming year.
I recommend you share these questions with your team. When you choose to share your responses, you will build deeper trust and create psychological safety and connection. In my book “Wired for Disruption”, I shared how trust makes teams nine times more agile. As virtual work continues into next year, we will all need trust agility to solve complex problems, do our best work and be the leaders our workplaces need.
To prepare for reflection, find a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. I believe reflection is sacred work when we look to discover our highest vision of who we aspire to be as leaders. We create space for insights and inspiration to emerge and broaden our awareness of what is meaningful.
Here are the ten questions:
1. What’s present for me now? This question will help you connect more deeply with your own state of mind, body and spirit. Take a few deep breaths to get centered. Just notice what’s here without judging it. You may be tired. You may feel grateful or sad or anxious. Accept what’s here. Notice if there is tension anywhere in the body and breathe deeply to release it. Notice if there are thoughts. Take a moment to notice these thoughts. Mindfulness teaches us that we are not our thoughts or our emotions. These are like the clouds passing by. We are like the sky watching the thoughts and allowing them to pass.
2. What and who am I grateful for? In this challenging year, there is still much to be grateful for. Perhaps there were moments of joy. Perhaps someone really came through for you, perhaps you’re grateful for being healthy. If you’re doing this exercise with your team, take some time to see if you can share your appreciation with a team member. Gratitude has been shown in studies to help us better deal with adversity.
3. What was challenging or painful? We have all experienced pain and challenge this year, whether it is the grief of losing loved ones, the stress of losing a job (or juggling the job with home life), the loss of certainty, the loss of physical contact with friends and loved ones. Many of us avoid getting in touch with our pain because we believe it will be too much or it will hijack our productivity or well, it’s just painful. Avoiding our emotions is exhausting. My own experience with pain this year and my learning from self-compassion expert Kristin Neff is that acknowledging our pain and practicing self-compassion helps us be more empathetic and resilient as leaders. As we make room for emotion, we are able to see beyond the emotion to the lessons of the experience. Acknowledging our pain also helps us see the fragility of our collective human experience. We are not machines. We are human and need care and tending, of ourselves and others.
4. What’s meaningful for me now? One of the gifts of challenge is that it brings us clarity. Acknowledging what is personally challenging helps us recognize what is meaningful to us. For example, one of my executive coaching clients was particularly moved by the Black Lives Matter reckoning we experienced this year. As a senior leader in her company, she found herself frustrated that there wasn’t enough of an understanding or even focus on the experience of African Americans at work. She realized that part of what made her work meaningful for her is the opportunity to speak out and be a catalyst for change and mutual understanding. This experience helped her connect more deeply with her own values of equality and justice.
5. What personal values or sense of purpose emerged? As you reflect on what’s meaningful, what did you discover about your personal values or sense of purpose? How did you serve the moment? This does not have to be on a grand scale. It can be small acts of kindness, courage or empathy. Often our values are underneath what gives us joy and satisfaction. As you look back in the year, what were moments of meaning? Another one of my executive coaching clients experiences joy when members of his team share what is vulnerable or challenging. He discovered that creating a trusted space where others can bond and grow is a strong value for him.
6. What parts of me were strengthened this year? Every challenge brings with it an opportunity to discover gifts within ourselves. What were the gifts that you discovered? Perhaps this was a year where you learned how to be more empathetic, or you discovered that you’re more resilient than you thought. Or more courageous. It was certainly a year that grew our humility as we recognized the limits of our own knowledge and control.
7. What practices restored or nourished me? Burnout is a real issue for us. According to a November 2020 study by Harris Online work-related burnout affects 76% of US employees. It is hard for us to be creative, engaged or empathetic when we are burned out as leaders. Whether it’s a daily workout, time in nature or mindfulness, we need to find ways to nourish ourselves. Our world will continue to be disrupted and this is an opportunity to grow our capacity to be centered in turbulence. For me it was my morning workout and kundalini yoga practice. I established a daily questions habit recommended by Marshall Goldsmith. Every morning, my accountability partner and I talk for a few minutes to hold ourselves accountable to our daily list of questions.
8. What were moments of grace that I experienced? Think back to times that someone was there just at the right time when you needed them, or you were for others. Did certain events happen that nudged you in a more authentic path or direction. What doors opened? What doors closed? Perhaps even in the middle of difficulty and challenge there was grace. What were those moments?
9. What is emerging for my stakeholders? From a focus on yourself, it is now time to take a step back to notice the ecosystem you’re part of. Who are important stakeholders for you, personally and professionally? What are challenges for these stakeholders? For example, one of my executive coaching clients mentioned that his company anticipates significant mergers & acquisitions activity in the coming months. Reflecting on this question helped him see that he would need to get out of the day-to-day P&L, delegate even more to his people and spend more time with stakeholders to anticipate the changes needed in his operations.
10. Given what I have learned from these reflections, who do I aspire to be in 2021? Given the pace of disruption, we have less control of outcomes. What we can control is how we show up to the leadership challenges of the moment. What values and qualities of character do you want to express in your actions? How do I bring what is meaningful to me now into a more fulfilling experience of 2021?
Take a minute now to savor the experience of self-reflection. How do you feel now? From a neuroscience perspective, when we take the time to savor an experience we are more likely to make it a habit.
If you enjoy reflecting, pick a question or two that you would like to keep reflecting on in 2021. As our world changes rapidly, our ability to reflect, notice what is emerging and co-create with others grows our self-awareness, change-agility and impact. If this resonated for you, please share this with others in your team or organization.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.