The Aspen Seminar And The Value of Self-Reflection

August 14, 2018

Azul Cimerman Sariego, an MBA student at Saïd Business School, looks back on a seminar run by the Aspen Institute and how learning to lett her guard down is helping her grow as a leader.

My main objective for studying the MBA was to give myself the opportunity to benefit from a time of self-reflection and introspection. As counterintuitive as it may seem, coping with the fast pace of an MBA programme makes the real you, your strengths and your weaknesses come to the surface. I do not underestimate the impact that my MBA classmates had on my self-reflection. Over the course of the last year, I was deeply inspired by my classmates’ strong morals, sense of service and advocacy and in awe at the sense of self that sustained them operating relentlessly towards these values. I was perhaps not vocal enough about pointing out such admirable traits to each of them over the course of the year, but I can confidently say that I can think of at least one amazing thing about each one of my MBA classmates. The conversations that I had with them, often within the context of formal dinners in Oxford’s awe-inspiring dining halls, were moments of enlightenment and learning that I feel so fortunate to have experienced. 

Self-introspection rose to a new level for me when I was invited to take part in Oxford’s inaugural Aspen Leadership Seminar, organised by Oxford Saïd. Aspen seminars are built on the premise that we cannot lead others without knowing how to lead ourselves and that good societies are built from good leadership which in turn requires the solid self-awareness of those who lead. As a School with a very diverse population and an emphasis on business that does well whilst doing good, Oxford Saïd seemed like the perfect environment for this dialogue. It was also the first offering of our school to the member schools of the Global Network for Advanced Management, which Oxford joined recently. 

I approached the preparation for the Aspen seminar with a mixture of excitement and suspicion. Aspen seminars are text-based discussions, in Socratic style with an intimate group of diverse people. In preparation, we were given readers with texts with authors as wide ranging as Chekhov, Aristotle and Mukerjee. The variety of topics made me wonder what to expect and how this would all tie up as a 20-person discussion. We were told to not be daunted by the complexity of the texts and to enjoy the journey of discovery. The diversity of the authors and writing styles was a breath of fresh air after a year immersed in Harvard Business School cases, whilst the common themes of authors as wide ranging as Plato to Le Guin proved to me that self-reflection is a deeply intrinsic endeavour of the curious human mind. 

During the seminar, I understood what a gift it is to truly take time to reflect. In an era of speed and agility, we forget that reflection is an endeavour that rewards the patient. Socratic discussion facilitated this as it involves wrestling with conflicting ideas before reaching a conclusion (if one is ever reached). In an era of digital communication, conversation and discussion were a powerful tool in the quest of introspection. Although reflection is sometimes perceived as an intimate activity, I realised the value there is in reflecting with a group of diverse people. In my case, my cohort had representation from fifteen business schools of the Global Network and I was awestruck realising how even, after the first discussion, we were no longer strangers. Over the course of the seminar, the highly intimate environment allowed our cohort to open up further, to share, to be vulnerable and to ask difficult questions.

As we go about our daily lives with an "outer armour" on us, the seminar was the type of learning environment where we had to leave all our armour behind to get full benefit of the experience and be reminded of the value of transparency. Although the seminar was only four days, the connections that form within an Aspen cohort are deep for this very reason. It made me reflect on what our workplaces and our societies might be if we were all more willing to let our guards down. It seems to me that transparency and honesty are the necessary building blocks for well purposed organisations. 

From a personal perspective, I take the learnings from this seminar as a highlight of my MBA experience as it enabled the pursuit of the very objectives that brought me to Oxford Saïd study an MBA. Articulating the experience to other classmates or in this blog post seemed for me like a huge endeavour as I’m still reflecting on the questions that were raised during the seminar and digesting the whole experience. As our four days together drew to a close, we knew we were changed in ways that were unexplainable. We all left with a series of concluding questions to reflect on and we knew we had homework still to do, the kind of homework that would take us a lifetime to finish. 

As much as I’m still reflecting on the personal experience I had during the seminar, the learnings that this experience has brought for my public persona are clear, as I reflect on how I can recreate this environment of self-reflection and transparency in the organisations I belong to and in the roles I take in my professional and public life to lead with purpose in today’s networked world.