Reflective leadership has gone into progressive short supply. In an era where prescriptive answers seem to dominate reflective ones, it has become more difficult to stop and think, to question, to wonder. After all, we have ready-made 7 Habits for This and 8 Attributes for That, which seem to provide universal answers. Introspection has never been favoured by traditional management, or at least, not by ‘mass management’. Granted, some elites that have been provided access to some forms of executive development may have had the opportunity. Even in that territory, however, self-reflection is rarely, if ever, at the top of the agenda.
An old psychological concept from the 60s may help to understand why leaders differ in their ability to self-reflect on their leadership and the impact of their actions. It’s call ‘external vs. internal locus of control’. People with a predominant ‘external locus of control’ tend to attribute events to external forces. In the opposite extreme, people with a predominant ‘internal locus of control’ will see themselves more in charge or protagonists of the events in their lives. It follows that the External People will end up blaming other people more, whilst Internal People will look more at themselves first.
This crude distinction is particularly important in areas such as Safety. In our Viral ChangeTM programmes we use this parameter a lot. Safety professionals or, simply employees, with high external locus of control will tend to see safety problems as something produced mainly by others, and will focus more on somebody else’s behaviours, versus considering that it is of their own making.
Leadership can be seen through similar lenses. Some leaders seem to never contemplate the possibility that they are the problem, it’s always somebody else’s fault. If there is any reflection, it’s certainly outwards. You need a good dose of ‘internal locus of control’ to realise that maybe the problem is you.
In my consulting practice I find this leadership problem one of the hardest to solve. Internal vs external locus of control is very entrenched in personality. It’s hard, but not impossible through good coaching, for example, to turn a High External individual around. My behavioural hat has however a clear, if not answer, guidance for this: create a habit of asking the question ‘what if this (problem, what is happening, what I see) has to do with me? What if the issue is me?’ The habit of repeated questioning is a good open door for possible better reflection, and, who knows, the discovery of a new world inside of you!
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