What is Reflective Leadership?



“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” ~Dolly Parton


When we envision successful leaders we know, some key traits easily come to mind: good communicator and listener, adept at problem solving, confident, adaptive, and skilled in the ability to focus on big picture goals while simultaneously keeping a handle on the minute details of the organization. However, today more than ever, a leader’s ability to relate to their team and work with diverse personality styles are continually rising in the rankings of important leadership traits. Because of this, the practice of reflective leadership is gaining traction as well.

What is reflective leadership?

Reflective leadership involves self-awareness, careful observation, and flexible responses. When a leader takes time to engage in these tenets, she is able to take her leadership to the next level and create a relationship-based organization. Leaders who become comfortable and familiar with their own strengths and limitations by examining their own reactions, thoughts and feelings about the work they are doing set the example for their employees around them. If everyone can take time to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses and make an action plan on how to move forward based on that information, the organization wins. Not everyone has the same strengths or weaknesses; defining these is key for improving the culture and success of your organization. Choosing observation over reaction when the situation allows is another great tenet of reflective leadership. Leaders can gain so much more from carefully deciphering the meaning of what they are seeing and hearing, and being curious about others’ behavior, tone of voice, body language or reactions. If a leader is curious about why certain things are happening, she may investigate for more comprehensive information before making a judgement and reacting. In order for a leader to practice flexible responses, she needs to know her staff, especially their personal work styles. How and in what environment do they work best? What motivates them? How do they learn? What mode of communication do they prefer? When a leader understands where each employee is coming from, she can adapt her responses to reflect each staff member’s particular needs, strengths, and areas for development. Showing such flexible responses is an important way for a leader to express mutual respect with staff members.

What does reflective leadership look like?

The Gibbs Reflective Cycle developed by Graham Gibbs is a great resource to get started on integrating reflective leadership into an organization. The cycle focuses on six steps: Description Create an objective description of something that happened within your organization, without coming to any conclusions yet. Be like a reporter, asking questions like: What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was involved? What did you do? What did the other people involved do? What was the result of these actions? Feelings Notice the feelings that came up. Some good questions to ask: How do you look back on the situation? What did you feel leading up to the event? How did you feel during the event? How did you feel after the event? What do you think other people felt during the event? Evaluation While it can be difficult to stay objective, this is the step where you’re determining if an event was good or bad. What went well during the activity? Why was that? What didn’t go well? Why was that? What was your contribution? What was the contribution of others? Analysis This is your opportunity to learn from the event. You have all the positive and negative aspects of the event in front of you, and you can begin the process of analysis so that you can learn from any mistakes that happened. Conclusion Now you can take a step back and look at all the information you’ve gathered, and begin to self-reflect on how you could have handled the event differently. To what positive experience did the event lead? To what negative experience did the event lead? What will you do differently the next time this event occurs? Which skills do you need to develop in yourself to change the way a similar event may happen? Action Plan Here is where the real nuts-and-bolts come out. All that analysis and self-reflection are leading up to making a plan for how to act next time a similar situation comes up. If everything went well, it may be as simple as “do it again.” If improvements were needed, you’re now armed with information on how to tackle the situation differently.

Why reflective leadership?

Implementing reflective leadership may seem like a lot of work and, at first, it may be. But once you get into the habit of working this way, it will come much more naturally. Plus, the value add to your organization presents a strong argument for taking steps in that direction. According to Pew Research, Millennials surpassed Generation Xers in 2015 as the largest generational cohort in American workplaces. Millennials also look closely at the quality of leadership and management they will work for. They want leaders who can inspire and support their best efforts and, ultimately, shape their careers. They do not want a manager who checks boxes and gives them performance reviews solely based on metrics. Beyond Millennials, however, any one from any generation can benefit from having a reflective leader, even the leader themselves. Being present with yourself will help you get more clear on your goals and how to make them happen. Being present with your staff and bringing your authentic self to them will help you build relationships and enhance the culture and success of your organization. We lead through relationships, so the more connected we are with those we are leading, the better off our organization will be as a whole.


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