Why Journaling Makes Better Leaders

This is a guest post by friend and mentor Bruce Rhoades, who retired after having run several companies. He often helps me with strategy. I am delighted that he is a regular contributor.

Why Journal?

There is much written about journaling, most of it on how to keep a journal, covering mechanics, tools and discipline.  It is more difficult to find information on the benefits of journaling from real-life experiences, especially pertaining to leaders.  Most of what is written on the benefits of journaling is about self-discovery, but I believe it can help make better leaders, too.

Many famous people kept journals or diaries.  These people came from all walks of life:  business (John D. Rockefeller); military (George Patton); inventors (Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison); presidents and prime ministers (John Adams, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill) and many authors (Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway).  These journals left a chronicle of thoughts, events and critical decisions as well as documenting their legacy.  But what about the rest of us?  Why write in a journal?

Years ago, I became interested in journaling.  At the time, I was very stressed and overloaded with responsibilities.  I needed something to help me stay focused.  I read several books, but one by Julia Cameron, The Right to Write, was the most helpful.  After reading her book, I began to journal and found it very beneficial.

Eventually, as I found myself in more prominent leadership positions, I found journaling helped improve my leadership in the following ways:

  • Better Organization
  • Improved Decision Making
  • Improved Demeanor, Attitude and Judgment
  • Enhanced Intention
  • Positive Reinforcement

Here is why writing in a journal makes better leaders.


Better Organization

One recommendation from The Right to Write is to write “Morning Pages” before the start of the workday.  I have found that to be the best time for maximum benefit.  Writing early in the morning gets the juices flowing before your mind has its normal defenses and filters in place.  There is something about writing early in the morning before engaging in the day’s activities that is very helpful — sort of like how your best ideas often occur in the shower.  Here are the main reasons:

  • Helps to reduce all the things in your head to key priorities
  • Allows you to ramble, then organize your thoughts for the day
  • Provides a way to better formulate tasks and frame issues
  • Gets mere ideas formed into concrete terms
  • Starts the day with a clear framework in mind
  • Improves the quality of your To-Do list

Writing in a journal in the morning will help you be more organized during the day.


Improved Decision Making

Writing in a journal is a great way to facilitate problem solving and decision making.  Here is how:

  • Provides a private, non-judgmental forum to work through issues; no one is watching and pressure is off
  • Helps facilitate idea generation and new perspectives
  • Facilitates better problem definition to make sure you are working on the right issue
  • Helps to develop alternatives and examine their positive and negative implications, resulting in better choices
  • Gives you the chance to formulate tasks and frame issues properly before “real time” in meetings
  • Provides a way to examine causes rather than symptoms for issues and problems
  • Provides a forum to ask “So What?” about problems, issues and directions
  • Makes your decisions and explanations more crisp
  • Turns thoughts, decisions and ideas into actions

If you are skeptical, just try it on some decision that you are contemplating.  Write and refine the problem definition; quickly list alternatives; structure the list; examine implications of each alternative; choose an alternative and list the actions that need to happen.  I predict it will help.


Improved Demeanor, Attitude and Judgment

When you are a leader, or in any situation that requires you to lead, you are carefully observed by others.  People observe your mood, attitude, emotions, behavior, actions and overall demeanor.  It is always best to be in touch with your motivations and rationale in leadership positions.  How does journaling help with all this?  It can:

  • Provide a private place to vent emotions so you can be more temperate in public
  • Help separate symptoms from causes
  • Examine feelings, emotions and facts for circumstances
  • Clarify and examine motivations for actions and decisions
  • Create a place to “discuss” things with your journal that you cannot discuss with anyone else
  • Discover hidden things on your mind that may be affecting your behavior
  • Help to separate personal issues from professional ones
  • Provide a forum to clarify performance issues (good and bad) for associates/subordinates
  • Allow you to think through causes for behavior of others; more balanced than just reacting
  • Allow you to reconnect with what energizes you and help focus your energy
  • Greatly improve self-awareness

It is very important as a leader to be aware of your emotions and motivations to provide consistent and effective leadership.  Writing in a journal is a great way to get “in touch.”


Enhanced Intention

There is much written about leading with intention and purpose (see the recent post: Leading with Intention: Every Moment is a Choice).  Many executive coaches help people become better leaders by improving their intention.  When you focus your mind and thoughts on what you want to happen, it is more likely to come true.  Journaling can help by:

  • Acting as a mechanism to evaluate and focus your mind on what you want versus spending energy on what you do not want
  • Providing a concrete method to visualize — not just in abstract terms but with specifics
  • Distilling the clutter in your mind to shape important priorities
  • Helping to energize you by actually listing your intentions for short and long term
  • Renewing your perspective on issues and expected results

It is important to frame intentions in your mind, but writing them down will make them more real, concrete and powerful.


Positive Reinforcement

My days always seem to go better when I remind myself of all the positive things in my life.  I think that is true for most people.  By reminding myself of the positive, the negative is not as foreboding, and problems can be put into a better perspective.  Journaling can help you stay positive by:

  • Providing a concrete, visible list of the positive things in your life
  • Helping develop a sense of gratitude to balance the negative
  • Providing a place and time to focus on what is going right
  • Allowing you to reflect and acknowledge progress on projects, initiatives and goals
  • Furnishing a fresh perspective
  • Helping you look for the positive in even the most difficult situations

There is something about writing about your gratitude that makes it more real and helps you to be more balanced in your daily activities.  It is easy to allow problems to take over, but journaling about the positives will keep your emotions in check.


Summary (and a few how-to’s)

Even though these thoughts are about the benefits of journaling for leaders, there are a few “how-to” tips that I have found helpful.

  • Write early in the morning, before events of the day take over. That is the most effective, but any time will be beneficial.
  • Use whatever method you like for writing. For years I used a spiral notebook and pencil, but my tool of choice now is the Day One Journal app.  It is clean, easy and can be used from multiple devices.  Some say that writing longhand is best, but do what works best for you.
  • Do not over-think your writing. Just start and write whatever is on your mind.  The point is to write about your thoughts — not publish a polished article.  The book The Right to Write is an old one, but if you want great tips and motivation, I recommend it.

I do not write every day, but do so regularly enough to keep the habit.  When I have allowed gaps, it is always satisfying when I begin again.

I believe that regular use of a journal will make you a better leader.  Much of my career required me to be “air-lifted” into temporary executive positions that required firm leadership.  I used morning pages in some of my most difficult situations and it helped immensely.  I made better decisions, had better priorities and was much more balanced in public.

Give it a try to see for yourself.  Just start.

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