Most leadership courses focus on how best to influence others—how to communicate more effectively, how to build successful teams, and how to motivate an organization to achieve a desired result.
But for Harry Kraemer, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and author of Becoming the Best: Build a World-Class Organization Through Values-Based Leadership, the Dale Carnegie approach misses a crucial first step. “It actually starts one step further back,” he says. “Before I can lead others, I had better be able to lead myself.”
Yes, leaders need to master communications, team-building and establishing lasting partnerships, but they cannot do so unless they first become their best selves. Of all the elements of leadership to master, Kraemer says, this is the most difficult.
In order to become their best selves, leaders need to be self-reflective—a quality that does not come easily to most. Part of the reason, of course, is that leaders simply do not have the time. “At the end of the day, most of us live in a world where we’ve got so many things to do and not enough time to do them,” Kraemer says. “There is this perpetual motion machine that we all get on and we’re all just constantly multitasking. There’s this constant view of ‘I don’t have the time to take the time to figure out what really matters.’”
But time is only part of the problem. The bigger issue is that self-reflection forces people to recognize that they are not paying attention to things they claim are important to them. “That can be very uncomfortable for people, to actually say to yourself: ‘What is most important to me in life?’ ” Kraemer says.
“Leaders are willing to get uncomfortable,” he says. They are willing to endure discomfort while challenging themselves to be self-reflective—to do the hard work of realizing their own values in order to have a foundation on which to build. “If I’m building and becoming a best self and a best team, I think becoming a best partner is a logical extension of that.”
Self-reflection also leaves one better prepared to deal with the unexpected. “If you’re self-reflective, you’re not going to be surprised very often. I find that the people who get surprised a lot aren’t very self-reflective.” Kraemer says that when he first started teaching values-based leadership, he was struck by how undervalued self-reflection is. He met a lot of bright, Type-A personalities who did not think such a quality mattered. They focused exclusively on their ambitions, which left them unprepared to deal with the contingencies of business and life.
Part of being self-reflective, Kraemer says, is having both true self-confidence and genuine humility. While these may seem difficult to square, Kraemer does not see a trade-off. “I don’t think of it that way,” he says. “You want more of both.”
Kraemer says it is important to understand what does and doesn’t qualify as true self-confidence. “It’s not egotistical. It’s not arrogant. It’s not obnoxious, nor is it complacent. I’m saying you’re somebody who realizes that there will always be people brighter than you are, more athletic than you are—but you’re OK. You know what you know.”
In this sense, true self-confidence is closely linked to genuine humility. “Genuine humility means realizing, I’m good, but I’m going to get a lot better, and every single person matters. I think the more self-confidence you have and the more genuine humility you have, the more relatable you will be, and the more people will want to work with you.”
Drew Calvert is a Chicago-based writer. This article originally appeared in Kellogg Insight for the Kellogg School of Management.