Becoming the Best: Build a World-Class Organization Through Values-Based Leadership

March 12, 2015


Harry Kramer, author of From Values to Action has a story in Becoming the Best that intimately illustrates "The Importance of Self-Reflection."

None of us wants to end up dissatisfied in life, and yet so many do—or perhaps we all do from time to time. Most often it stems from dissatisfaction in the workplace. We work hard to get ahead, see the advantages and potential in a shiny new position, justify any trade-offs as necessary to achieve other goals, and years later end up in a rut of one kind or another, trying desperately to scramble back to the lives we imagined and become our best, true selves. Since leaving his leadership position as CEO of Baxter International, Harry Kraemer has made it his mission to teach his values-based approach to leadership and help others in this constant quest.

And he believes that, to lead your life from a base of your own personal values—regardless of your position in the company hierarchy, or whether you even have a position within one—you must understand...



Self-reflection is the gateway to self-awareness and self-knowledge. The more you understand yourself, the better you are able to relate to other people. Relating to them allows you to influence them, which is how leadership happens. Values-based leadership moves from the inside out, rooted in the knowledge of what you stand for and what matters most—personally and professionally. All of us lead multifaceted lives, with decisions that impact others, including spouses, partners, and children, as well as colleagues, friends, and team members. The choices we make impact our quality of life.

Self-reflection provides an instant window to what is critically important to you—today, in this moment of your life. You'll make some compromises; everyone does. But you can't really know what you're giving up and the impact of these trade-offs unless you stop to reflect. Otherwise, you will move from activity to activity, from one crisis to another, without a sense of direction or purpose. When you are overwhelmed by everything life is throwing at you, you can't possibly expect to be your best self. That's where self-reflection comes in, helping you prioritize and get back on track.

Often when I talk to people, from students to CEOs, I frequently hear that they are surprised by the consequences of their choices—even things that seem obvious, such as a job requiring extremely long hours or frequent travel. All they know is that they feel out of balance and they aren't living in a way that is consistent with their best selves. The negative aspects of work can quickly become exhausting, even putting a strain on personal relationships and family life. When people suffering from such problems wake up to how stressed and unhappy they are, the source of their trouble often comes as a surprise. The root cause in these situations is typically a lack of self-reflection.

On a business trip to the West Coast, I ran into a former student of mine from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management at Los Angeles International Airport. When "Joe" reintroduced himself, he reminded me that he had been in my class six years earlier. I remembered him as a very bright individual who had really grasped the principles of values-based leadership as we had discussed them in class. However, when I asked how he was doing, he replied, "Honestly, not very well. I'm really surprised at what's happened in my life."

Joe told me he'd gotten married and had two children, a son and a daughter. Because of his job with an investment bank, which paid him a lot of money, he traveled 90 percent of the time. As a result, he spent very little e time with his wife and family, and when he was home, he was exhausted. While Joe was doing very well at the investment bank, and there were aspects of the job he really loved, he wasn't engaged in areas of his life that were important to him, especially his family. In short, he'd lost sight of what he said was crucial to him.

Although I was sympathetic to his situation, I couldn't figure out why he was surprised. It appeared Joe had decided that this professional opportunity and its high salary would be good for him, his career, and his family finances, but he did not self-reflect on the job's broader impact. Self-awareness could have improved his decision-making process, but without it, he was surprised by how stressed and unhappy he had become.

Fortunately, self-reflection is a skill that can be picked up at any time. First, Joe needed to look at things honestly. While he was earning a great salary and bonus, if he analyzed what he was being paid for the actual time he dedicated to his job—accounting for the 80-, 90-, and 100-hour weeks with the pressure of extensive travel and grueling deadlines—he was actually being paid at the rate of a more junior person working a 40-hour week. (When I tell my students this, their faces drop in astonishment, with the realization that this could happen to me.)

In our conversation, I never made a recommendation about what Joe should do, or a value judgment about what should be most important to him. He needed to decide that for himself, which he could only do by taking the time (as little as 15 minutes a day of self-reflection) to identify his priorities. If he decided that his career was most important to him at that point in his life, then he needed to be willing to sacrifice time spent on his relationships. That is not a "wrong" or "bad" choice, provided that it is his conscious decision, with a full understanding of the implications. Self-reflection could even help him to identify solutions such as how to spend the little free time he has for the most positive impact and reward.

I asked Joe, "Do you remember how we talked about the importance of self-reflection in class?"

"Of course," Joe replied. "I used to love those assignments, where we had to write a one-page, double-spaced self-reflection every week on our values, goals, and priorities. I guess I got away from doing it."

In the whirl of moving to New York City, being a strong performer (the first guy in the office each morning and the last one to leave at night) and highly regarded at his firm, Joe let self-reflection slip. He stopped asking himself what was most important in his life, what his priorities were, and whether he was comfortable making compromises. Again, I wasn't telling Joe to quit his job at the investment bank, nor do I want to imply that people shouldn't take demanding jobs. I believed that by returning to his habit of self-reflection Joe would find the answers within and would likely seek out someone to be a sounding board. Similarly, each of us is faced with choices, and what we choose should align with becoming our best selves.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Becoming the Best by Harry M. Kraemer.
Copyright 2015 by Harry M. Kraemer.
All rights reserved.
This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


HARRY M. JANSEN KRAEMER Jr. is a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, where he teaches in the MBA and the Executive MBA programs. He is an executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, one of the largest private equity firms in the United States, where he consults with CEOs and other senior executives of companies in MDP's extensive portfolio. Kraemer is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Baxter International Inc., a multibillion-dollar global health care company, and the author of From Values to Action.

For more information, please visit www.harrykraemer.org.

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