Introspection in LE leadership

Recognizing our flaws requires introspection, which is the single most important character trait of a successful leader

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power." —Lao Tzu

What is the most important quality in a leader? Courage? Humility? Empathy? Accountability? Vision? All of these are necessary characteristics of a leader, but none of them are possible to attain if a person in a position of leadership doesn’t know what flaws he or she has. Those flaws keep us from being the best version of ourselves. Recognizing our flaws requires introspection and that is the single most important character trait of a successful leader.

University of Sydney psychologist Anthony M. Grant discovered that people who possess greater insight – which he defines as an understanding of ourselves – enjoy stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose and greater well-being, self-acceptance and happiness. Those characteristics are the necessary core attributes of a great leader.

The Knowledge/Ignorance Conundrum

Because the folks afflicted with a lack of introspection are not aware of their lack of introspection because of their lack of introspection, they are stuck there indefinitely. How would they ever become aware if no one tells them? How would you even broach the topic? If you supervise one of these folks, it’s pretty easy. Just tell them or address it in their periodic evaluations.

What if it's your boss who lacks introspection? Think about some of the people you’ve served under during your time in law enforcement. I guarantee you’ll be able to come up with at least a few who had no idea they had a certain character flaw that kept them from being a better leader. It’s more common than not, in my experience. That complicates things. Should you speak with your boss about their character flaws? I don’t suggest using the Warren Wilson Method where you just say what you think whenever you are thinking it. Side effects include unpaid vacation days, undesirable transfers and a thickening personnel file. In all seriousness, we’re focusing on the wrong person here. There’s little you can do if you work for someone who lacks introspection. There is one person, however, over which you have 100% control: Yourself.

How Would I Know?

We are all afflicted with a lack of introspection to some extent and it’s difficult to recognize our faults. See the Dunning-Kruger Effect here. Once we realize that, how do we move toward being more introspective? “Navel-gazing” (self-reflection) as it’s called, doesn’t necessarily bring us to a point of self-improvement. Our goal is to reach a point of insight – a greater understanding of ourselves – not self-indulgence and certainly not excessive self-criticism. People who are overly critical of themselves tend to be more stressed and have lower self-esteem, which does nothing to enhance their effectiveness at their work.

Officer, Heal Thyself

Some people are their own worst critics. Some people aren’t self-aware at all. Most are somewhere in the middle. How do we recognize our failures and improve them? How do we enhance our introspection without becoming overly self-critical to the point of being self-destructive?

I’ll give you an example of a good barometer to measure your introspection: If you don’t occasionally apologize or at the very least, take responsibility for organizational failures, one of two things is possible: You’re either perfect – which isn’t likely – or you lack introspection. If you aren’t working on your character flaws, you’re wrong. That said, there is a wrong way to be introspective.  

What Instead of Why

The single most effective way to become constructively self-aware that I’ve found is to avoid focusing on the why and instead, focus on the what. Instead of self-analyzing why you have a certain flaw, focus on the flaw itself.

Focusing on why you act a certain way allows you to explain it away or blame others: “If my father wasn’t so hard on me…” What those flaws are is truly the only thing that matters. For example, if you tend to speak out of turn, it doesn't matter that you came from a large family and you grew up jumping at any opportunity to speak. What matters is that you must correct that flaw. How you got to that point is irrelevant to fixing the problem.

Working the Problem

Let’s work our way through one of the most common flaws in the law enforcement leader, micromanagement. To help us do that, we will use two of the most common attributes: empathy and vision. Certainly, we are all familiar with a micromanager. They feel the need to control many more aspects of their subordinates’ work than is truly necessary. That environment eventually creates an officer who won’t or can’t make decisions because they know the boss will swoop in and do it for them. Micromanagement also stunts the subordinate’s growth as a decision-maker.

How do we fix this character flaw? We use our empathy and our vision. Empathy is the ability to understand others. Vision is the ability to see how today’s decision will affect the future. A leader with a healthy reserve of empathy should recognize that officers under their command want to do the right thing. They want to make the best decisions. Using our empathy, we will let our folks make decisions and – yes – even mistakes. A leader with a strong vision understands that minor mistakes made today make a stronger decision maker tomorrow. That’s a big pill to swallow for the micromanager, but allowing people to make decisions strengthens your organization.

Eating the Elephant

Self-improvement is a big project. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Pick something you don’t like about yourself. Forget the past and how you got to where you are today. Just focus on what the particular flaw is and do something about it. Focus on your communication with your subordinates and co-workers. Think about how you could do better in the future. Also, don’t just focus on your faults. Consider your positive attributes. How can you use those traits to make yourself a better leader? Most important of all, give yourself a break once in a while. Take a minute now and then to reflect.

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