The Mirrors of Leadership That Lead to Change

September 26, 2023

Mirrors of Leadership

The Mirrors of Leadership

The mirrors in most bedrooms and bathrooms reflect physical reality. I’ll label them as mirrors 1.0, because they are passive, offering no useful information other than the mere reflection of what is in front of them. They provide no helpful independent evaluation or interpretation of what they see.

During a typical day, I encounter many mirrors. When I shave, get dressed, and comb my hair in the morning, I use several. On occasion, however, as I’m about to leave my bedroom, my wife observes, “Your trousers and shirt don’t look good together.” I turn back, and upon further reflection (pun intended), I can see that she is right. Even I can see the mismatch. I grudgingly find something that matches. My wife is a living mirror, one that I describe as 2.0, an advanced generation of a mirror.

I get into my car. In front of me is a classic rear-view mirror. These mirrors were installed not long after cars were invented and mass-produced. But drivers discovered that there were enormous blind spots if the driver relied only on the rear-view mirror. It did not provide information about what was happening on either side of the car. Then auto manufacturers attached side mirrors. That helped, but drivers soon discovered that side mirrors left blind spots. So, engineers and designers altered these mirrors, by making the entire mirror convex, or adding a small convex mirror that gave a more panoramic view to that side of the car. These mirrors were improvements, but they were still passive. Yes, they were strategically placed and had some new physical features, so we’ll give them a 1.2 designation

Leaders need mirrors

In today’s fast-paced, complex world, leaders need mirrors. The mirrors they need, however, go far beyond reflecting their physical appearance. Leaders need mirrors that reflect their behavior and the impact their behavior has on others. That requires much more than a piece of glass with a thin layer of metallic silver on the back. Leaders need mirrors to interpret data and feed it back to them in a practical form.

Three kinds of mirrors seem particularly helpful:

1.    360-degree feedback. The Scottish poet-philosopher, Robert Burns, wrote:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion.”

What leader would not like to avoid making serious blunders, or to avoid harboring a foolish notion?

Information from colleagues can prevent making an unwise hire, acquiring a flawed product, or making an imprudent investment.

360-degree feedback is a 2.0 mirror, in part because it is honest. It does not just tell you what you want to hear. It tells you what you need to understand because it illuminates blind spots. That candor comes in part because it is confidential. It is more constructive because it is gathered for the purpose of development, not evaluation. The accuracy of 360-degree feedback comes from normally combining the perceptions of more than a dozen colleagues. Well-constructed 360-degree feedback focuses on a wide variety of leadership behavior, leaving no blind-spots that could cause the leader to be involved in destructive accidents. Such feedback provides a broad, more panoramic view of the individual, ranging from the person’s character and personal capabilities, their interpersonal skills, their ability to produce good results, and their ability to lead change.

2.    Asking for feedback from colleagues. 

A second powerful mirror comes in the form of personal, spoken messages from colleagues. But, in reality, such comments come sparingly. Managers are encouraged to do more coaching with their subordinates, but we all know that is usually somewhere between sparing and non-existent. There is one thing leaders can do, however, that opens the spigot much wider. It is the practice of asking personally and directly for specific feedback.

This works best when the following general formula is used:

A.   Why you are asking. “You know that presentation I gave last week? I’ve been asked to give it again. I want to make it even better.”

B.   What exactly do you want? “Could you give me one suggestion that from your perspective would have made that a better presentation?”

C.   Appreciation and keeping the door open. “Thanks. I can make that change. I really appreciate that suggestion.”

The entire process is quick. It does not come across as fishing for compliments. You obviously want to improve your presentation. The conversation is simple. You are not asking for a treatise on how you can become a better public speaker. It ends with a sincere “thank you,” which keeps the door open for later requests.

3.    Coaching

A third valuable mirror is establishing a coaching relationship with someone. That person could be internal or external to the organization. It could be a boss or someone who is a peer or subordinate. (Yes, we see many examples of more senior bosses asking a younger, newer person to coach them on technology, or help them see more clearly the consumer preferences of a much younger generation. The power of the coaching relationship is that it is personal, focused on the development of the person being coached, and it builds in a powerful process of follow-through and sustainment. Coaching relationships are usually structured to last for several months, with intermittent contact.

Making Better Mirrors

Primitive mirrors were first discovered in civilizations dating back 6,000 years. Then, 3,000 years later, the Egyptians made improvements by polishing copper or bronze, which reflected 20 to 30 percent of the light that hits it. But images were still dim. Then in 1835, a German chemist developed a process for applying a thin layer of metallic silver to one side of a pane of clear glass, and the modern mirror was born.

The great need, however, is not for a passive device that reflects back exactly what is exposed to it. The real gift is the mirror that adds value by interpreting and reporting accurately what it sees, along with suggestions for improvement. That is what unites the three recommendations above. All three are personal, and they provide added insights and suggestions. They open the door for further helpful information to come, and seek to augment your career and your life.

-Jack Zenger