On Leadership Journaling

Black woman writing in a diary on a wooden desk.

In today’s digital world, there’s one analog practice I cherish. Journaling.

Now to be fair, you can journal on your phone, tablet or computer, but I’ve long found that my best thinking comes when I make time to put pen to paper. This age-old practice isn’t just for personal insights and daily documentation. It’s also a great tool for leadership growth as well.

On first thought, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest leaders find time to journal, of all things. The business climate changes day by day and there’s pressure from all directions – superiors, stockholders, customers. You have to be ready, agile, quick. But you also have to be visionary, innovate, creative and smart. And that’s where journaling comes in.

Nancy Adler, an expert in arts-inspired leadership, writes:

Extraordinary leadership requires seeing before others see, understanding before others understand, and acting before others act.”

Wise leadership requires careful reflection of evolving ideas and feelings that may be forgotten from one day to the next. Mental processing is difficult enough without the added distractions from push notifications, information overload and more. Let’s face it – deep thinking seems impossible when you can barely keep up with email!

But we encourage leaders to try journaling as a way to retell, review and understand the events of the day. Just the act of recording what happened and what you thought, felt, or noticed will give you perspective over time.

Journaling allows you a moment of quiet honesty in a busy life. You’re not sharing your notes with direct reports, peers, or anyone else. You’re writing for you, so you can tell the truth as you know it. Document ideas you want to revisit, research or refine. Acknowledge, observe and work through feelings, gut reactions, and hunches.

Not only does journaling prevent your important mental notes from being lost, but it also improves your thinking. Research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that settled brains are better at processing and problem solving. Journaling quiets the mind so you can think more clearly in the moment. I sometimes refer to it as meditation by writing.

Take a few minutes to document and digest your day.

Additionally, research sponsored by the National Institute of Health found that replaying experiences in our minds is a great tool for learning. As you relive thoughts and feelings while journaling, you reflect on them. Such reflection is a key step in increasing self-awareness, as well as better understanding the world around you.

Dan Ciampa, author of Right From the Start: Taking Charge In a New Leadership Role (Harvard Business Review Press, 1999), believes journaling what’s working and what’s not throughout the day is great for learing. There are lessons in your successes and mistakes, and with a little practice and diligence, you can discern when and how to implement positive changes. 

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