I have often remarked that most leaders know more about their pets, cars and investments than they know about themselves. This would deserve a good belly laugh if self-awareness were not so central to leadership.
One strategy I am religious about is taking quiet time just for me every year. I use that time to contemplate how fortunate I am, review and scrutinize my values and beliefs, and think about where I’m going with my life. Over the years, this discipline almost always produces some important surprises: a relationship I have been taking for granted comes to light; it suddenly clicks why I hold so firmly to a particular belief; I realize that my life/work direction needs adjustment.
Not everyone thinks about an annual retreat as a necessity. Some are even put off by the idea. What is so threatening about scheduling quiet time to reflect on one’s life, relationships, leadership and future?
Meg, the CEO of a small company, recently told me about her long-anticipated personal retreat:
"I had heard from several colleagues about the tremendous value of taking a few days away by myself. It sounded intriguing, so I booked my accommodations, drove to a rural bed-and-breakfast, checked in, brought my luggage up to my room and sat down. After 10 minutes of unnerving silence, I wondered what in the world I was doing alone in an unfamiliar place. It kind of freaked me out. So I carried my luggage back to my car, checked out and drove home."
Combating chronic busyness
Chronic busyness and routine avoidance so dominate the landscape of contemporary leadership that experiences like Meg’s might be more the norm than the exception. What does it mean when a leader cannot slow her pace and quiet her mind without triggering terror? "It kind of freaked me out," was Meg’s way of saying, "I found myself uncomfortable, with no place to hide."
Too often, leaders keep themselves emotionally comfortable by under-focusing on themselves while over-focusing on others. A personal retreat can help restore balance by sharpening a leader’s most important tool: self-awareness.
Self-awareness can be stimulated by the wonder of nature, a jarring sentence in a novel or a recent comment from a friend. But the fires of personal growth are best fanned when leaders slow down long enough to ponder deeper questions. Ten of my favorite questions provide a good foundation for a personal retreat:
1. What are my most important life purposes and goals?
2. What am I doing that just doesn’t make sense?
3. How much money is enough, and what will I do with it when I get it?
4. What do I want to accomplish before I die?
5. What (and who) am I avoiding that deserves direct attention?
6. In which relationships am I taking too much responsibility? Where too little?
7. In what situations do I tend to "lose my bearings"?
8. What conditions and routines help me stay calm and at peace?
9. Which of my greatest fears are imaginary vs. reality-based?
10. What stands in the way of me living my best life?
Planning your retreat
Without a plan for using alone time productively, it’s too easy for structure-hungry leaders like Meg to aimlessly drift towards diversion, distraction or departure. Left completely alone, it’s easy to find oneself snacking every hour or walking the cat nine times a day. To guard against procrastination or outright avoidance, consider these elements for your personal retreat:
Select a quiet place you can escape to for one or two days. This can be your home, a private getaway, or a hotel, inn or lodge. Or a tent.
Bring comfortable clothes, walking boots or shoes and the questions I’ve listed above. Pack a thick pad of writing paper, or a personal journal.
In response to each question, write down everything that comes to mind: thoughts, ideas, fears and yearnings. View this as a time for "naming and emptying."
Distinguish the personal retreat from other forms of relaxation and rejuvenation. This is not the same as a round of golf or a few hours at a spa. Rather, this is a time to take stock of your life, your thoughts and your destiny. Resist the urge to work on your business, finances or other projects.
Take frequent breaks to walk outside. Breathe deeply and notice nature. Let your mind wander and wonder. Moving back and forth between reflection and movement buoys energy and brain functioning. Take a nap if you feel the urge.
To get the full experience, leave your personal electronic devices off and be unavailable for conversations except for designated break periods.
Soon after your retreat, identify a close friend or confidential coach with whom you can share your notes and your main takeaways. Ask, "What questions come to mind about anything I have said to you? What patterns do you notice?"
Review your retreat insights and reflect on the questions posed by your friend or coach. Identify what’s most important for you to keep thinking about or start acting on. Construct a brief list of three to five follow-up steps or ideas, such as:
"Consciously connect with Amy and Justin."
"Get a life outside work and family. Friendships? Worthy causes? Stay with this…"
"Reduce need for recognition."
"Marriage getaways-make this happen."
"Stop telling others what to do-slow down the automatic directing."
Summer is an ideal time for a personal retreat. Making this an annual discipline adds reflection and depth to your life and leadership. Those around you will benefit much more from you working on you than from anything you will ever tell them about them.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].
7/5/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].