Looking Inward Can Make You a Better Leader
Change starts from the inside. To be a better leader in 2021, incorporate inner work into your daily routine.
If I asked you to make a list of all the things you need to do for your job, what would be on it? No doubt you would include key projects, internal and external communication, goal setting and strategy, recruiting and mentoring. All of those are essential aspects of leadership, of course, but they leave out an equally important side of your job — inner work. Inner work can be defined as mental acts or activities focused in your inner world to achieve a purpose or result.
Leaders are understandably focused on their external performance, but as legendary CEO of General Electric Jeffrey Immelt says, “Leadership is this intense journey into yourself.”
In the race for productivity, we often overlook activities that help us to maintain our emotional equilibrium, to approach others with empathy, and to refresh our creativity. But this inner work is actually part of every leader’s job. It is an essential part of what you get paid to do.
Bringing inner work out of the shadows
What sort of activities constitute inner work? These are not new-fangled interventions but tried-and-true methods of self-care and reflection such us meditation, journaling, spending time in nature, seeking help from a therapist or coach, and prayer. Decades of evidence show engaging in these activities can reduce stress, boost creativity, improve well-being and ultimately increase engagement at work and professional performance.
Despite all the research supporting the impact of these interventions, many executives would feel guilty or embarrassed to put “nature walk” or “prayer” on their calendar. That reflects an outdated view of work.
The reality is that creative work is nonlinear. You may have hours or days of apparent “unproductivity,” followed by a sudden, valuable burst of output. Most likely, those “lost” hours weren’t unproductive at all. They were actually filled with the inner work necessary to make the later breakthrough possible.
If you’re doing any form of knowledge work — and as John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison point out, pretty much everyone is a knowledge worker these days — inner work isn’t a nice extra for you to pursue during your personal time or feel guilty about secretly doing. It’s an essential investment in yourself that helps you maximize your effectiveness and impact. Achieving greater clarity, centeredness and creativity are all possible with regular inner work.
Charles Darwin famously brought his toughest problems to his “thinking path” outside his home in Kent as he walked and contemplated his way through them. For the luminary who forever changed the course of science, it wasn’t hours working away in a laboratory but pensive walks around his house that fostered his breakthroughs. Siddhartha Gautama is said to have sat for seven weeks under a bodhi tree to obtain enlightenment. He was still on the outside, but on the inside, he was engaging in intense inner work, the insights of which would spark a religious revolution and birth one of the world’s great wisdom traditions.
Getting started on inner work
Leaders have been engaging in inner work forever. From Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., regular inner work has afforded leaders the opportunity to center themselves, gather their thoughts and galvanize their impact by more closely aligning their actions with their values. It’s time to bring inner work out of the shadows and formally acknowledge its value. Recharging and reflecting shouldn’t be hidden or a source of guilt. Inner work should be celebrated. That is the first step to creating both a personal routine and an organization that is friendly to inner work.
At my company, we have formalized our support for inner work by offering employees five paid “Inner Work Days” a year in addition to their usual vacation time. We encourage them to take these days to engage in whatever activities help them do their best work, be that pursuing a hobby or taking a digital detox. By paying them to do these things, we underline that taking care of yourself isn’t separate from your work — it’s the most essential part of your job.
While this formal approach is one possible route to nurturing inner work, it’s not the only one. The good news is most of the interventions that research shows boost our ability to excel at work are easy to get started with. And, they are free — or pretty close to free. For example, you don’t need paid time off to begin meditating. All you need is your breath and a little instruction.
To get started with inner work, you do need to dedicate some time to it, which is why my biggest piece of advice for leaders who want to elevate inner work is to schedule it, just as you would schedule any other priority into your calendar. Adding 30 minutes of white space into your day for whatever form of inner work you find most beneficial not only ensures that it doesn’t get pushed aside by everyday busyness but also serves as a reminder that looking inward is valuable work too.
To build on the benefits of time devoted to inner work, encourage team members to share its benefits. We have a Slack channel dedicated to inner work where employees share pictures of their Inner Work Days or insights learned from books they read. It serves as a celebration and validation of inner work, and it also builds a sense of community as employees recognize they are all on a journey of self-improvement together.
Which is the whole point. There is nothing revolutionary about inner work. The scientific case for these activities is clear, and you are likely already familiar with them. The essential change to make isn’t mastering the science or complexities of inner work. It’s seeing it as a key part of your professional, not just personal, development. Realizing that the gap between those two is much narrower than you may think will make you a better leader.
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