Self-Reflection and Self-Discovery: A Leadership Learning Journey From College to Retirement

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In 1969, I graduated from Wagner College, located on Staten Island, New York, with a degree in chemistry, along with many learning memories. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, and had an exceptional passion for life as well as a strong desire to have a productive and rewarding career. Now in retirement, I have discovered that life is a true learning journey.

It all starts during childhood, based on the major influences of parents and siblings, specific to values and a family-oriented culture. My parents were German immigrants with very clear core values specific to integrity, humility, and empathy. They encouraged high levels of openness and always showed a willingness to help all five of their sons find their inner generosity, love, and wisdom. Besides enhancing our courage and conviction, they created principles based on respect. My brothers, one of whom was my twin, pursued very diverse careers, from business and music to medicine and film production. Yet, a key step in my personal growth was attending college, exploring my independence, and building self-awareness. As a college freshman away from family, I was no longer seen as a twin, but rather as an individual focused on my relationships and my pursuit of opportunities.

Reflecting back, college served as the foundation for the learning of many leadership competencies and skills. These became critical components and success factors throughout my teaching and business career. They defined my personal identity, such as my sense of humor, passion to learn, energy, commitment, and values. They helped enhance other individual aspects, such as creativity, imagination, and a willingness to take risks. College was a time for self-discovery, fun, and, of course, hard work.

The four years of undergraduate studies at Wagner were full of many engaging interactions and experiences. Here are three simple memories:

  • The professors all had different teaching styles. The professor of organic chemistry lectured and wrote formulas on the board with the chalk in one hand and an eraser in the other. I learned quickly how to capture notes at high speed.
  • I had a lab partner, Emily, for all four years at Wagner. She was very friendly, and was willing to tolerate my behaviors of arriving late and being silly. I learned the importance of communication and active listening, as well as the value of building relationships and teamwork.
  • I was required to take one semester of scientific German, and the final exam was a challenging experience—translating a page in German from a science publication into English. Some of the words went across the entire page. I proceeded to write a story based on words that I could translate and attempted to build a picture of a scientific investigation. The professor passed me based on my “creative and imaginative translation.”

All of the experiences at Wagner became part of my dynamic management and leadership approaches. And, my personal connecting style evolved throughout my career based on exceptional experiences, engaging relationships, and fantastic discoveries along the way.
My career followed several major steps—from teaching high school chemistry for 10 years, to a marketing role for a chemical company. I eventually moved into human resource management, followed by several vice president positions focused on global learning and development, employee engagement, company branding, and executive coaching. Throughout my career, I continued my education, completing many degrees and certifications at a variety of internationally renowned institutions.


Looking back to the years that I taught chemistry, I developed and utilized the leadership competency of influencing. In the classroom, the teacher serves as the catalyst, sparking the learning of the subject content and igniting the potential for applying new and exciting concepts. The students master the material through their involvement, sharing their thoughts and asking questions. As a teacher and a leader, I have learned the importance of authentic communication and influencing the actions and commitments of others from the heart.

Throughout my career, I have discovered that leadership is more than just a science, more than just an art, and more than just a craft. Leadership is founded on human chemistry—the ability of a leader to look inward and become fully self-aware, and the ability of a leader to look outward and build an understanding of others. Specifically, leaders need to meet the needs of people. They need to focus not on themselves, but on others. Leaders need to communicate openly, listen more, be honest with the facts, have a dynamic vision, and be accountable for their actions. Leaders also need to be compassionate and empathetic, and able to use both emotional and social intelligence to build relationships. Every leader has their own personal “chemistry” associated with their behaviors, thinking dynamics, managerial actions, performance approaches, and ways of connecting with people.

Building relationships and connections became a critical competency throughout all the positions that I held in the business world and in life. During a corporate event in Stockholm, our small group of executives spent one of the evenings in a little cabin in the woods. This place was built in the early 1800s, and it had only two rooms: one for our coats, and the other equipped with a very large table, surrounded by chairs. The table was beautifully decorated with cheeses, fruit, breads, and wonderful wine and beer. We sat around the cozy table, sharing stories of all sorts, jokes, and challenging experiences. What was occurring all night was the formation of memorable connections and long-term relationships based on openness and personal vulnerability. The human side of life, both in the business world as well as in our personal lives, grew and established a belief in each other as business partners and as friends. Memories were made. Respect and appreciation was grown.


Leadership is about using the head and the heart. It is about motivating employees and gaining their commitment to drive business performance and address the accelerated pace of change. Wise leaders are constantly growing, evolving, and developing creative thinking capabilities and competencies throughout their journey. I have learned to develop my abilities to engage, not control others, gain regular and constructive feedback, and have a passion to drive corporate successes.

My leadership wisdom is based on experiences and knowledge throughout life. This wisdom has had an impact on my judgments, decisions, and actions. I have learned to have a clear purpose and mission. My wisdom is founded on actively listening, on building engaging relationships, and on communicating with high levels of authenticity and clarity.

So, here are some personal wisdom pieces gathered from my leadership learning journey, from college to retirement:

  • Always find the good and positive in everything.
  • Use past lessons to build future experiences.
  • Make careful choices and turn dreams into reality.
  • Accept challenges and stretch innovative imagination.
  • Learn and grow from the contributions of others.
  • Appreciate the love and support of a community.
About the Author

Paul Fein is an organizational development consultant and certified life coach. As the the managing leader and director of The IDD Leadership Group, he a develops custom-created management development programs. Connect with Paul on LinkedIn. 

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