The 10-minute Exercise Every Effective Leader Must Do

To be a great leader, you must know who you are and where you’ve been. That may sound simple, but leadership requires a tremendous sense of self-awareness, one that typically takes time and experience to develop. For years, I’ve used a tool I call the lifeline exercise to help me hone my self-awareness. The lifeline exercise allows you to take a hard look at your past and think about the events that have most deeply shaped you, your values, and your goals. I like to revisit and update mine each December to reflect on my experiences over the last twelve months, so that I can grow from them in the new year.

Lifeline Exercise

To grow your self-awareness, you need to actively take the time to get to know yourself better. The best way to do this is to understand how you got where you are today and what kind of person that journey has helped you become. Use this lifeline exercise as a chance to take some time to slow down and truly reflect.

#1 Start by drawing a horizontal line that stretches from your earliest memories to today. Along that lifeline, plot key life events such as graduations, marriage(s), deaths, births, and jobs. Then layer in other experiences: victories you’ve achieved, crises you’ve endured, fears you’ve overcome, stands you’ve taken, and lessons you’ve learned.

#2 For each event, place points above and below the horizontal line to correspond with the intensity of emotions that accompanied each event or experience. For a true high, like the birth of a child, you might put a dot high above the line. For a low, like the death of a loved one, you might put a dot well below the line.

#3 Once you’ve captured the events and the experiences that have shaped you, draw a line connecting the dots. Feel free to add notes, draw pictures, or otherwise embellish your lifeline–anything that makes it feel more personal. When you connect the dots, you may notice that it looks like a heartbeat, which has always felt fitting to me.

#4 Take a moment to reflect. What surprises you about your lifeline? Were the highs really that high? Were there lessons you learned from the lows? How did each of those dots contribute in some small (or big) way to the person you are today, and to the leader you strive to become? As you look at the big picture, ask yourself what your lifeline says about what you really value.

#5 Identify something that is missing from your journey so far–it might be an experience or a piece of understanding–and make a concrete plan to address it. Sign up for a course, make a call to a potential mentor, read a book–but take action so that the next time you return to your lifeline, you have a new, meaningful dot to incorporate.

 How the lifeline helped me

I want to share with you my lifeline to give you a visual of what I have used in my life to get to know myself better. I still look at this and add to it from time to time to remind myself of where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and what lessons have not come easily to me.

David's personal lifeline.

Early in my career, I worked with a lot of accomplished people with MBAs from Ivy League schools. I only had a bachelor’s degree, and it wasn’t even in business; it was in journalism from the University of Missouri. I was different and I knew it, but it took a while before I had the confidence to admit it. As silly as it may seem, for years when the conversation turned toward the subject of where people had earned their MBAs, I’d excuse myself to go to the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to answer the question.

It was a real internal struggle knowing I was so different from my colleagues. They saw me as only this “marketing guy” that didn’t have the full education. I also knew that many of my leaders viewed me as the “marketing guy.” Deep down I knew I wanted more, but how was I going to get there? Thankfully, I eventually realized that hiding wasn’t going to get me the opportunities I wanted. I wanted to be the leader, a CEO, one day. That’s when I started taking stock of who I really was and getting to know myself better. Maybe I didn’t have an MBA, but I knew I was pretty good at seeking out the knowledge I needed to move ahead.

When I was head of marketing at PepsiCo I went to the CEO, Craig Weatherup, and asked him to make me Chief Operating Officer even though I’d had absolutely no operating experience. Even though the role would be a stretch, I knew that I didn’t want to be the “marketing guy” my whole career. I wanted broader responsibilities and I needed broader experience. I clearly wasn’t the obvious choice, so I made Craig a deal: Test me out in the position, and if I failed, he could bump me back down to marketing, even fire me, whatever he thought was best. So he gave me a shot and neither one of us had any regrets, but the real takeaway that I got from this was that I had to do deeper work on myself to grow and stretch myself. Doing the lifeline allowed me to step back and reflect and then look ahead to what I needed to do to reach the next high point - which for me at the time was to eventually become CEO.


While the journey to self-awareness might be difficult, the good news is that your effort will  bring leadership success and effectiveness. I like to summarize the path to achievement in this way: self-assessment, self-improvement, success, self-assessment, self-improvement, success, repeat. This, to me, is the pinnacle of becoming an even more effective leader.

December 14, 2021