I know, you’re in search of the next great leadership skill. Well, I want to let you in on a secret: there is a leadership skill — a tool, really — that’s available to you right now.
It’s right there at your fingertips, ready for the taking — and you’re probably not taking it.
I’m talking about keeping a journal. Journaling can be one of the most powerful tools in your leadership tool kit, but you probably have a whole host of excuses for why it won’t work for you: you don’t have time to journal, you wouldn’t know what to write, you’re not a writer, or one of a hundred other reasons.
Before I get to overcoming your objections (which I will), let me build a case for why keeping a journal will improve your leadership ability and is the secret leadership skill that you’re missing.
Real Leaders Journal
Let’s start with one of the most compelling reasons you should journal if you want to be a great leader: great leaders journal.
Leaders throughout history have used a journal to record their activities, thoughts, and feelings. Presidents as diverse as Barrack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Adams have all kept journals.
Business leaders such as John D. Rockefeller and Richard Branson journaled. Sir Branson, in fact, is rarely out of reach of a notebook.
Similar to other scientists and inventors, Marie Curie kept detailed journals of her work. She kept her journals so close at hand, in fact, that today they are stored in lead boxes to protect archivists from the radiation they absorbed during her work. Lewis and Clark, the explorers who led an expedition across the American continent, were also prolific journalers, writing more than one million words.
And Emilie Davis, a free African American woman in Philadelphia, kept journals throughout the Civil War that provided us with a unique perspective of events such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the assassination of President Lincoln. You get the idea.
But why did these leaders keep journals?
The fact is that studies have shown that there are numerous and varied wellness benefits of journaling including healing from a trauma or loss, building self-confidence, and using a journal to live a healthier lifestyle — all of which can help you become a better leader.
The Benefits of Your New Leadership Skill
Beyond just wellness, however, writing in a journal can also help you achieve your goals, increase your emotional intelligence, and improve your decision-making.
Dr. Gail Matthews conducted a study at the Dominican University of California on the impact writing down goals can have on our likelihood of achieving them. Her study found that the participants who wrote down their goals had a 42% higher likelihood of making significant progress toward their goals than those who only thought about them.
Likewise, most leadership experts recognize the need for leaders to spend time in reflection. By devoting this time, leaders can improve their self-awareness. Management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
Reflecting in a journal will develop your awareness of your strengths, your personal critical success factors, and your derailers. This reflection and improved self-awareness will, in turn, develop your overall emotional intelligence. As you understand more about yourself, you will understand more about the people around you.
By adopting a journaling routine, you will also develop improved decision-making capabilities. Your journal is yours. In your writing, you can take the time to define the problem, digging to the root. You can examine an issue from a variety of perspectives, without judgment. The act of writing will help you connect the dots as you examine a problem. It provides a mechanism to brainstorm ideas for resolving the problem, perhaps going beyond the obvious.
As you develop ideas, you can write about the pros and the cons and the unintended consequences of the actions. Once you decide upon a course of action, journaling can help you define the actions needed and hone your talk track for conveying the solution to others.
A journal can help you get organized. Leaders who journal about the day or week ahead report improved clarity and focus. Their to-do list becomes less of a mental checklist and more of a specific list of actions for the day and week. The mental exercise of journaling can take something that is “just an idea” and turn it into the steps needed to achieve it.
Perhaps most importantly, journaling lessens stress and strengthens resilience. Those who actively write in a journal report lower levels of stress with the reflective activity of journaling enabling them to process what is occurring around them. One of the mechanisms to improve resilience and reduce stress is to examine times in the past that you have faced and overcome adversity. Keeping a journal provides a record of those times.
In my mind, however, the most significant benefit a leader receives from journaling is when they go back and re-read portions of what they have written. New lessons emerge, new ideas are born, and new ways of thinking about a problem are revealed. Why? Because you will have changed, the environment around you will have changed, and your thinking will have changed. Reading past entries can, in fact, explain why things are happening in the present.
How to Develop the Journaling for Leadership Skill
So, if I’ve done my job and made my case, you should be ready to set out on your journaling journey! If so, there are several key practices that will help you form the habit and master the art of journaling.
To help form the habit, set aside some time on a daily basis to write in your journal. By creating the rhythm of daily writing, you will begin to see the benefits much more quickly, reinforcing the act of journaling in your routine.
It is important that you set aside the same time each day to journal. If you are a morning person, set the alarm just a few minutes earlier and dedicate that time to writing in your journal. Perhaps, you find writing over lunch to be a great time for you to focus, or maybe you are a night owl and you find writing just before bed to be the best time to reflect on the day. It doesn’t matter what time of day you journal, what is important is that you journal at the same time each day.
Another important practice to forming the habit is where you journal. Try to go to the same place each day. From me, my home office provides the quiet space I need. For you, it might be your favorite chair, your bed, or a bench on your deck. Again, like the when of journaling, where specifically you journal isn’t as important as using the same place each time. Your brain will become trained and realize, “It’s 6am, I’m in my office, it must be time to journal.”
There are many media that you can use to journal. You can use your word processor, one of the many apps on the market, or the voice recorder on your phone. To realize the full benefit of journaling, however, I encourage you to handwrite it. There have been many neurological studies that show the mere act of writing (versus typing, recording, etc.) improves our focus. It helps the brain identify the signals in all the noise.
While we are on the how, don’t worry about the elegance of your prose, punctuation, or the grammar. This is your journal. There will be no judgment. Two of the most prolific journalers in history were Lewis & Clark. Together they wrote over one million words while on the exploration of the west — and they spelled mosquito 26 different ways.
What to write in your journal can be a big hurdle for many who are new to the practice. Journal entries can be short or they can go on for pages. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s journal entry on on a very tragic day was a large “X” and the words “the light has gone out of my life”.
No other explanation was necessary. He knew exactly what the words meant, he knew exactly what transpired that day, he knew the emotions he felt and why.
If you need prompts to help form the habit there are hundreds of journaling guides available online. Find several that you find relevant and use those to generate thoughts. One I particularly like is the Gibbs Reflective Cycle.
Developed by Graham Gibbs in 1988, it remains an outstanding tool to help guide your journaling. The cycle takes you through six steps for examining an experience that has occurred:
- First, describe the experience.
- Relate your feelings about the experience.
- Evaluate the experience, both the good and bad.
- Analyze the experience, in other words, try to make sense of it.
- Develop a conclusion about the experience.
- Finally, build an action plan based on the experience.
It’s Time to Commit to Your New Leadership Skill
Do you want to amplify your leadership?
Well, then you should start journaling today! In fact, you probably have a lined journal sitting around from the last conference you attended. Grab it now. Open it up to the first page and write: “I insert your name, commit to writing in this journal every day beginning today. I will write every day at insert time of day you will journal. I will write in my journal while in my insert where you will write. I will reflect upon my journal entries every week.”
And, just like that, you will have discovered one of the most powerful leadership skills in history — sitting there at your fingertips the whole time!