How Your Journal Can Make You a Better Leader

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A Haitian proverb says, “Beyond the mountains there are more mountains.”

That may sum up the journey of learning to lead. Learning to lead is a lifetime journey. The journey that has no clear endpoint. Beyond the mountains there are more mountains.

Your life as a leader will be full of ups and downs, of successes and failures, of joy and pain. The one place you can bring it all together is your journal. You can use your journal from your first leadership attempts to a decades-long looking back. It’s the basket where you can collect all the pieces of your leadership life.

Here are seven ways your journal can help you become a better leader.

Get A Little Better Every Day

Journal comes from the French word for day. Accounting journals chronicle transactions day by day. You can do the same with your leadership life.

Use your journal to learn from experience. At the end of the day, chronicle the events. Make notes about what you did and how it turned out. Think about how you can do better next time.

Stay Focused on Your Goals

Goals are tricky. They can concentrate your energy and remind you of what’s important. But it’s all too easy for a goal to slip from the back burner to the back of the stove and maybe off the stove altogether. Your journal can help you make sure that doesn’t happen.

In the morning, write out what you want to accomplish that day. Define the three most important things you want to get done. Decide what’s most important so you can do it first.

At the end of the day, review how you did. Did you accomplish everything you set out to do? If you’re like me, that rarely happens. I tend to set goals bigger than my capacity. I’m better at setting goals now than I was 10 years ago. I learn from my journal.


It’s devilishly easy to get caught up in the day-to-day rush. Some leaders think the biggest challenge to any leader today is finding time to reflect.

You can find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for a while and reflect without a journal. But a journal gives you a way to capture your thoughts so that you can sharpen them. It gives you a way to go back and find your conclusions when you need to.

So, don’t just reflect. Reflect with your journal open in front of you and your pen in your hand.

Think Things Through

Dwight Eisenhower was a gregarious human being. He called himself, “a born optimist.” He knew, though, that optimism and positive thinking and hard work were not enough to do his best. So, he carved out time to be alone and reflect on his responsibilities and challenges.

Eisenhower wrote memos to himself. Some of the most interesting have the title, “Worries of a Commander.” He found that writing was a great way to make his thinking more effective. By going over things he worried about, he found some that he could simply remove from his list. He analyzed others. He thought through strategic decisions and people decisions.

You can do the same thing. Write about problems you’re facing, things you’re worried about, opportunities you’d like to seize. Clarify your thinking before you share it with others.

Analyze Tradeoffs

Dr. Thomas Sowell says that “There are no solutions, there are only tradeoffs.” Life is full of them and your journal is a place where you can analyze them.

You can analyze tradeoffs the way Benjamin Franklin did. He made two columns, one for pros and one for cons, and listed items in each column. He used the analysis to help make decisions.

You can answer my mother’s question, “If you do that, what do you think will happen?”

Generate Ideas

Ideas are where action gets started. If you face a problem or need to act, use your journal to help decide what to do. Make lists of things you can do and add comments. Draw mind maps. Use freewriting to let ideas bubble up from inside your brain.

Nobel Laureate (twice) Linus Pauling said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”

Imagine Success and Failure

Prospective hindsight is imagining how your project or decision worked out. You can use it to determine the best courses of action. There are two ways to do this.

Imaging you had great success and then write about how you achieved it. That’s what Anne Mulcahy did at Xerox. She and other executives put together an imaginary Wall Street Journal story about the fabulous success of Xerox. Putting the story together gave morale a boost and helped identify the actions Xerox needed to take to be successful.

On the other side of the coin is the premortem. This is a technique developed by psychologist Gary Klein. Start from the idea that your project or decision worked out badly. Then work backward to see what things you did that contributed to the failure.

Prospective hindsight is a powerful way to think about how you will act and what you will decide. And a journal is the perfect place to do it.

Bottom Line

Your journal is a simple, powerful, low-tech tool that can help make you a better leader. Use it to learn from experience so you get better every day. Use it to help you stay focused on your goals. Use it to reflect on what’s happening and what you should do. Use it to think things through and sharpen your thinking. Use it to analyze tradeoffs. Use it to generate ideas. Use it to imagine success and failure.

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