December 1, 2023 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders
The key to effective and fruitful reflection doesn’t lie in the content of your thoughts. It’s in your awareness and understanding of your thought processes.
In my own journey and in my work accompanying others as a pastor and clinical psychologist, I have found that the key catalyst for growth and healing is a particular reflective practice that cognitive psychologists describe as metacognition. Put simply, metacognition is the practice of thinking about one’s thinking. Psychologists have in fact identified two primary areas of focus in the practice of metacognition: 1) the content of one’s reflections (e.g., thoughts, emotions), and 2) oneself as the person doing the reflecting. When I’m thinking about what I’m thinking or how I’m thinking, I’m practicing metacognition. Similarly, when I get out of my head and observe myself and my inner landscape in the third person, I’m practicing metacognition as well. So, within the context of this larger conversation about leadership and reflection, perhaps it would be fair to describe metacognition as the practice of reflecting on the contents of one’s reflections and on the one doing the reflecting.
Why, then, is it important for leaders to practice metacognition? Let’s dive deeper into this question together and explore this topic from a few different angles.
Metacognition and Humility
To begin, metacognitive practices can help leaders make more accurate assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, such as the limits of their knowledge or abilities. When we are attending a workshop to learn a new skill, for example, metacognition helps us recognize when our attention has waned (I used to daydream in class a lot when I was a student) and then redirects us to re-learn material that may not have consolidated into memory. Or when we are in the midst of a vigorous train of thought, metacognition invites us to take a step back and ask, “Am I asking the right questions?” or “Is there a better way that I haven’t thought of?” or, “Am I even working on the right things right now?”
Metacognition helps us be honest about what we can and cannot do, setting the stage for the setting of realistic goals and plans to leverage our strengths and address our limitations—whether this may involve further education and training or finding and collaborating with others who have abilities that complement our own. In Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence, the authors explain that people often tend to be blissfully unaware of their own incompetence and that this tendency can unfortunately lead to a cascading effect of further incompetence.
This is the case especially for those in positions of leadership because if leaders themselves do not have the adequate skill and knowledge to perform a task well and are unaware of their own incompetence, not only will this task continue to be done poorly but nothing will be done to rectify the problem. Furthermore, the leader will then train others to perform this task poorly and will continue to model this incompetence to the rest of the organization, demonstrating (especially to people who are competent) that the culture of the organization is one that tolerates incompetence.
Accurate self-assessment is in fact the hallmark of humility. The humble leader is one who possesses a capacity to accurately assess their own abilities and achievements alongside their mistakes, imperfections, and limitations. The aim of humility is neither self-promotion nor self-deprecation—it’s about seeing and holding the whole of oneself accurately. Holding oneself accurately is what enables us to recognize the gifts that we have and share them with others generously. Conversely, it also helps us accept the reality that we are not omni-competent, freeing us from the need to be someone we are not or to offer something we do not have.
Humble individuals have been described by some scholars as those who embody a ‘quiet ego’—one that is free of excessive self-interest or self-absorption and one that takes on a less defensive posture when others challenge or disagree with their viewpoints. Learning to see oneself accurately sets us free from the absurdities and wasted time and energy tied to us trying to be (and/or merely portraying ourselves to be) someone we are not. And it turns out that being comfortable in our own skin (inclusive of both our strengths and weaknesses) actually makes a positive impact on the bottom line. Research has confirmed that the benefits of humility in leaders extend beyond just the performance of the leader; it also positively shapes the overall culture of the organizations they lead and it also enhances the performance and well-being of those who work under them. And what is one of the key ingredients to the cultivation and ongoing maturation of humility? Metacognition.
Metacognition and Self-Compassion
Metacognition helps people gain insight not only into the content and process of their reflections, but also into themselves as the person doing the reflecting. We can learn quite a bit about ourselves, for example by observing the way we talk to ourselves when we are engaged in a performance-oriented task. Imagine yourself playing basketball and you are standing on the free throw line preparing to shoot a free throw. Imagine yourself readying yourself moments before you begin a public speaking engagement. If someone were to transcribe the content of your thoughts during those moments, what would people learn about you if they were to read this transcription? If we were to observe ourselves with a third person perspective, with openness and curiosity, with the intension of knowing ourselves better (following the same relational posture that we might take when we are making a new friend and getting to know them for the first time), it’s often surprising what we might find out about ourselves.
In my clinical work as a licensed psychologist, I have the honor of bearing witness to the inner lives of my clients and I often find myself functioning as a mirror of some sorts, noting and then reflecting back the content of the dialogues that people silently have with themselves. And for many of us (and this seems to be especially true of many high-functioning leaders I’ve worked with), the way we talk to ourselves can be quite cruel. Sometimes, our self-talk might reflect the internalization of how significant figures in our life spoke to us or treated us in the past (and/or continue to speak to us in the present). Sometimes, the way we speak to ourselves might also just reflect expectations that we place on ourselves, without any external influence. Regardless of its origins, when I repeat the self-talk out loud or write it down on paper with the intension of providing perspective (so that this content can be observed more objectively in the third person), the response I typically receive is shock. We would never dream of saying such things out loud and especially not to another human being. And yet that is how we typically speak to ourselves. Perhaps there is truth to the adage: we are each our own worst critic.
Metacognitive awareness in relation to our self-talk is most crucial when we encounter instances of pain or failure—something that is a common part of human experience and unavoidable when we are in positions of leadership. How do we speak to ourselves under such circumstances? Do we engage in harsh self-criticism or just push forward and pretend nothing has happened? Kristen Neff suggests that there is a third way—that of self-compassion.
Compassion involves being open to and moved by the suffering of others, bearing witness to their pain with patience, kindness, and the understanding that all humans are imperfect and that our world is unjust—that ‘good’ things don’t always happen to ‘good’ people and that ‘bad’ things don’t always happen to ‘bad’ people. Most people I work with don’t struggle to experience compassion when they encounter suffering in other people. Their hearts are moved intuitively and without effort by the pain of others. However, when it comes to our own suffering, we often struggle with extending this same courtesy—or humanity—to ourselves. Self-compassion involves us being open to and moved by our own suffering—bearing witness to our own pain with patience, kindness, and the understanding that all humans are imperfect and that our world is unjust.
Moving from compassion for others to compassion toward oneself can feel like a lifelong journey. Metacognitive awareness of ourselves, cultivated through observing ourselves in the third person while temporarily suspending the typical judgments we might make along the way, is one of the primary ingredients that makes self-compassion germinate.
Self-compassion is not a movement away from accountability or responsibility. It’s actually a movement towards reality—harmony between the reality of ourselves, the reality of others, and the reality of the world. In Leadership Is an Art by Max De Pree, he notes, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.” Self-compassion is a way to define reality—to see things more clearly so that we can take responsibility for the things that we can take responsibility for
and accept the things that we can’t. Self-compassion sets us up for growth, even after crises and highly distressing events. The metacognitive awareness that comes from self-compassion enables us to hold the limitations of ourselves, of others, and of our world in a way that sees these limitations in proper context (within common humanity) so that we can set realistic goals and move forward as grounded individuals.
Holding Yourself with Compassion
In light of this, I consider it fitting for us to revisit Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. When you are in the midst of a crucible moment in your life and leadership, as you are reflecting on the many thoughts and considerations that might be occupying space inside your mind, return to this prayer and respond to its invitation to consider the person doing the reflecting and to hold that person with compassion (1 Corinthians 1:3-4).
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
 J.J. Bauer and H.A. Wayment “The psychology of the quiet ego.” In H.A. Wayment et al. (eds.) Transcending Self-interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego, American Psychological Association (2008): 7–19.
 D.C. Wang, M.E.L. Hall, L.R. Shannonhouse, M.C.B. Mize, J.D. Aten, E.B. Davis, D.R. Van Tongeren, & K.Annan, “Why leader humility is vital to effective humanitarian aid leadership: A review of the literature,” Disasters 45 (2021): 797-818. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12446
 K. D. Neff, “The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion,” Self and Identity 2 (2003): 223-250.https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309027
Yuhan, J., Wang, D. C., Canada, A., & Schwartz, J. (2021). Growth after trauma: The role of self-compassion following Hurricane Harvey. Trauma Care, 1, 119-129. https://doi.org/10.3390/traumacare1020011
Banner image by Getty Images on Unsplash.
David C. Wang, ThM, PhD is the Cliff and Joyce Penner Chair for the Formation of Emotionally Healthy Leaders at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA, USA). He is also pastor of spiritual formation at One Life City Church (Fullerton, CA) and a licensed psychologist (drdavidcwang.com). His academic and applied work focuses on the holistic formation of Christian leaders, inclusive of the formation of emotional health and resilience alongside the leader’s intellectual and spiritual formation. He is the editor of the Journal of Psychology and Theology and conducts research on trauma and traumatic stress, spiritual formation and spiritual theology (with a special interest in the experience of the spiritual desert), and various topics related to multicultural psychology, peace, and justice. He also oversees research grants funded by the John Templeton Foundation (on the human and spiritual formation of religious leaders; seminaryformationproject.com) as well as the Lilly Endowment (on mobilizing diverse local congregations to meet the spiritual and mental health needs of trauma survivors).