“Being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself”
Vaclav Havel, Speech 1991
Vaclav Havel has been a role model for me since the early 1990’s. I was enamored with the politically romantic story of a playwright becoming president of Czechoslovakia. I often wondered if he thought about how absurd it all was. It could have been a scene from one of his absurdist plays.
Havel scared many people while in office. On the surface he appeared without portfolio. No prior official political background or experience. He was soft spoken but a good listener to other people. What was there to fear in this small, chain smoking man? After all, he was just a writer.
His hidden talent was observing the human condition of his fellow Czechs living under the rule of communism and then giving voice to that condition in his plays. Havel also trusted his own lived experience as an informant of his inner condition. Vaclav Havel was a skilled practitioner of self-reflection. He was masterful at attending to both the head and the heart. I believe it was his capacity to get on the balcony and witness the world, make some interpretations and hypotheses and then return to the political arena and lead. He moved back and forth.
Arena – Balcony – Arena – Balcony – Repeat
During this pandemic, we are witnessing many political leaders effectively working the dance floor and the arena. Most of them are women. A roll call:
Mette Fridreisksen, Prime Minister of Denmark, who has guided her country through the pandemic with wisdom and compassion and astute political moves.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, has been tested hard before we heard of Covid19. She has dealt with a housing crisis, child poverty and social inequity. While hard stuff, it could not have prepared her for the Christchurch mosque shootings. Then came the virus. Ardern has used all her collaboration skills to keep building the community that is New Zealand. She is political without being highly partisan. She seems to spend just enough time on the balcony to take the temperature of her country and its place in the world. Her missteps have been few.
Then there is Angela Merkel. Often dubbed the most powerful woman in the world, Merkel has been reminding the world that each Covid19 death represents someone’s father or mother; someone’s grandfather or grandmother. She often reflects and speaks on what life was like for her growing up in East Germany and that she and her country are better for reunification. She is a master at slowing the work down, reflecting and then intervening. She has not been perfect but she stays in her practice of leading with humility, modesty, intelligence and compassion.
There is never high performance without feedback. Getting on the balcony is a feedback platform. It is a place to gather data from the arena and a time to self-reflect. Some questions a leader can use in their self-reflection practice:
- What is going on in the organization from which I can learn how to lead?
- What is my contribution to the mess I am trying to solve?
- Or any other open ended question that produces a pause in the action and provides a view of the arena
I used to soft sell the essential work of a self-reflection practice. No more. Self-reflection takes discipline and self-candor. I believe it requires two elements:
- Journaling. Every day write down your reflections from your work in the arena. Do this everyday for two months. Then decide if you want to stop. I doubt you will do that.
- Read your journal. Do this every other week at a minimum. If you do this work, you will see patterns in your behavior that support your leadership efforts and patterns that work against you. You are unlikely to argue against your own handwritten data. You are also more likely to make changes that support your leadership.
Our absurd Havelian world is asking more people to choose to lead. Those who raise their hand and lead will do well to remember that no one arrives at the door in a snowstorm without leaving footprints. Self-reflective leaders understand the impact of their footprints on their organizations and adapt.