Unfolding Leadership: Results Through Reflection & Awareness

We often view leadership through the telescope of strength and action.  Yet the quieter aspects like reflection, self-awareness, and critical thinking play a powerful role in the shadows.

Leadership consultant, Dan Oestreich, is bringing them to the foreground with every client he advises.  I caught up with Dan recently and asked him to shed light on what he calls reflective leadership and how it unfolds greatness in leaders today.


Unfolding Leadership: Results Through Reflection & Awareness Image by:w4nd3rl0st

Image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/w4nd3rl0st/ via Creative Commons License

Q: Dan, what brought you to use the phrase “unfolding leadership”? It isn’t a common phrase.

I like the term, “unfolding,” because I think leadership is something that does not usually come all at once. It is a gradual process of revelation about one’s own potentials, capabilities, purposes in life, and even destiny.  Our personal “story” unfolds the chapters with twists and turns that give us self-knowledge and illuminate the treasure of our own leadership.  Unfolding means we gradually learn to live up to our true and often unknown potentials.


Q: The clients drawn to this approach – do they have a common background, need, or personality type?

The clients I work with are in two categories both of which represent discomfort. In one category are those who are experiencing pain at work. Something has gone wrong with work relationships. They are in trouble and they want to get out of it which often means overcoming hurt, blame, and a sense of failure.  In the other category are people who want to uncover their potential and struggle through the discomfort to reach new success.  

I know a technical leader, for example, who sees himself as a valuable higher level, organizational leader but isn’t considered for promotion. He wants to know what’s causing this reaction and what he can do about it.


Q: In your opinion, what are the 3 biggest INNER challenges that most developing leaders face? 

  1. Devoting time and energy to their own growth. The world is churning fast and it requires adaptation to succeed. Meanwhile the negative industrial age taboos still suggest we shouldn’t waste time on touchy-feely inner work. Breaking that barrier and reflecting to unfold inner truths and talents is an essential step.
  2. Anxiety that self-discoveries will be awful. This kind of negative thinking can paralyze unless we confront the fear. Through reflective exercises the anxiety dissipates as people notice the universality of their stories. Other leaders have the same worries, problems, and issues as they do!
  3. Isolation and a sense of being undeserving.  Isolation is not a beautiful place of solitude. It is a state of numbness and unknowing.  One client admitted, “I’d like to do some of the inner work you suggest but every time I look inside myself, I find nothing at all. It’s just dark.” That’s a voice of unworthiness suffocating what else can grow. It takes learning how to nurture and care for ourselves to get past this point and discover your leadership talents.


Q: How does someone in business school today learn more about unfolding their greatness? Can you speed the process or must it evolve slowly? 

I do think a person can turn the wheel faster on their growth and development, but it surely is not an instantaneous process.  People learn about their leadership most quickly by taking on leadership tasks – guiding a team, standing up to power, working to overcome mistrust in a relationship, articulating a personal and group vision, and bringing up “undiscussables,” including problems with one’s own leadership.  We learn from environments and tasks we haven’t mastered yet but that hold a deep emotional investment for us.  We grow in our leadership where we are vulnerable, where we don’t know, where there’s an “edge” to a situation and we must go beyond that edge.

Beyond that, learn to follow your intuition toward challenges you already know you need to undertake, especially those involved in relationships, initiating action, and building emotional strength.  Learn to go toward projects that have a bit of a personal chill to them, but where you feel called. Learn to lead without having been given clear formal authority or basing it all on what you already know.


Q: From all your coaching on reflective leadership, what advice would you give budding leaders? 

  1. Go a little slower at first than you think you should. A new leader often pushes him- or herself and the team to overcome challenges the new leader believes are necessary. This can muck things up fast.  Build rapport, develop trust, and see things from the team members’ perspectives before you expect them to see your view.
  2. Model what it means to ask for and use feedback to you, both in terms of the work the team does and your own leadership.  A former boss taught me this and reminded me that if you are in a leadership role and can’t receive feedback – then you shouldn’t be in that role. It’s just that simple.
  3. Develop insight into others and their potentials. Often new leaders focus on what team members don’t have rather than on what they do have. They judge and categorize quickly, depleting options. This is not just about giving compliments. It ‘s about helping others  see and develop their “best self”.
  4. Don’t make the team all about you and your responsibilities. You are not responsible for every glitch, problem or mistake that goes on within your team. When you blame yourself, you either lose confidence in your own capabilities (feeling overworked and martyred) or you make team members’ performance an extension of your own. The latter leads to a kind of emotional violence where you think “how could you do this to me” instead of asking how did this happen and what can we do about it?
  5. Spend time in reflection. If you have a practice of regular meditation, great. If you don’t develop your own style of listening within. Great leaders have great self-awareness – a kind of intrapersonal intelligence as well as interpersonal intelligence. They take the time to notice their own real thoughts, feelings, and needs. They soothe themselves in the haywire chaos, learn from experience, celebrate strengths, and remind themselves of larger possibilities that drew them to a leadership role in the first place.


Q: You mentioned that some leaders want to know if they have to call it “reflective” leadership.  What do you say to them?

I suggest they recalibrate their view of leadership and ask them to champion self-awareness and growth by calling it reflective leadership.   Why try to morph it into something in their comfort zone? If they want others to grow, they must model and champion a new approach themselves.


Thanks Dan!  I appreciate you sharing your insights with my blog subscribers. Most people today agree that self-aware leaders bring something special to leadership.  They more easily avoid mentoring others into their own unhealthy habits.  They can empathize with others’ issues yet still engage employees for excellence and accountability.

So if as a leader you are focused purely on results and have always seen reflection and awareness as time wasting detour, think again.  The more you know about yourself, the more you can bring your excellence to those you lead in order to tap theirs for amazing results.

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

Dan Oestreich, Unfolding Leadership

About Dan Oestreich :  For over twenty years, Dan has supported leaders, teams and organizations through coaching, consulting, facilitation and training. Known for his dedication to helping others gain deeper self-awareness and develop trust-based leadership capabilities, Dan’s clients come from all sectors of the economy, from manufacturing to health-care, universities, government, and utilities to financial institutions. He is co-author of two books, Driving Fear Out of the Workplace and The Courageous Messenger.  He lives near Seattle and can be reached at 425-922-2859 or via email: dan@unfoldingleadership.com.


©2012 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email info@katenasser.com. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

4 Responses to “Unfolding Leadership: Results Through Reflection & Awareness”

  1. Dan says:

    Many, many thanks, Kate. It was a great pleasure and delight to share in this conversation!

  2. Khalid says:

    Hi Kate, Dan,

    Very excellent post. It touches lots of areas where I’m facing as a new leader.

    Thank you for unfolding my leadership 🙂


  3. Charmaine says:

    Thanks Kate and Dan,

    I am an unfolding, fledgling leader. Being action orientated, I thought I should jump in and get results quickly. But I am learning through experience that I have to grow first. This is through reflection and self awareness. I thought that I was being inefficient, but am slowly realising the benefit of unfolding as the path becomes clearer and I can make better, informed decisions in leading my team.

    Your conversation has been a welcome reminder to not get lost in action and that time spent in reflection is not time wasted.

    Warm regards

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Charmaine,
      I too am very action oriented. Over the years I learned that some reflection takes time and less action — and other reflection and learning can some through action.

      Embracing both methods brings success!

      So pleased this post helped you. Hope you will visit here and Dan’s blog often and contribute your learning.

      Warmest wishes,

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