Successful leaders continuously harness the power of reflective thinking | Daily News


Leading your flock into greener pastures – Part 9

Successful leaders continuously harness the power of reflective thinking

Do you ever feel that you are so busy getting things done that there is not enough time to think and reflect on how you might do things differently? In today’s fast-paced world of work, the pressure of tight deadlines, customer demands, a competitive market place, and the need to deliver immediate results can fill your day with a lot of activity.

Top this off with the need for work-life balance and the juggling of family responsibilities, and there seems to be little time available to step back, reflect and ask ourselves: “Is there a better way?

Why is it important to reflect?

According to Professor Patricia Castelli of Lawrence Technical University (Michigan, USA), leaders who are reflective can bring about improvements in employee well-being, engagement and performance. Not only are reflective leaders more effective managers, but reflective leadership can result in improved organisational performance.

Although our focus here is on reflective leadership, reflective practice isfor anyone who is learning a new skill, developing a new competency, has a problem to solve, or is looking for a more innovative solution. It can be a useful and effective approach to learning and problem-solving in any role, and in life in general.

What is reflective practice?

Reflective practice is the deliberate and critical examination of our experiences in order to build new understanding, to learn, and to solve problems. Reflective practice requires self-observation, critical thinking, the ability to evaluate oneself, and the ability to take others’ perspectives.

It requires an open mind, a non-judgemental stance and a willingness to step back and look at things in new ways. Leaders who model reflective practice in their relationships and conversations with employees can support them in building insight into their own behaviour and help them to develop new skills and competencies

Three abilities

Reflecting will enable you to notice and see things that may not have been immediately apparent to you when the experience occurred. You gain insights into each experience by making connections between, for example, the actions and reactions of yourself and others involved in the event. These connections enable you to identify the causes and effects of these actions and reactions.

Professor Castelli has identified three abilities that are necessary for effective reflective practice:

Self-awareness – focusing on your own behaviour and evaluating it in a candid manner. (We have discussed this topic extensively few weeks ago.)

Mindfulness – paying attention to your feelings, actions and thoughts;

Wisdom – thinking through the available options and the consequences of your decision

How to become a reflective leader

To be a reflective leader, you should:

(a) Value open communication. Have an open-door policy; be a good listener; empathise; be constructive in your feedback; and be credible. Open, honest communication without judgement is essential for people to feel safe to admit and learn from their mistakes.

(b) Build self-esteem and confidence. Build relationships that are encouraging and supportive; provide direction and feedback; be a coach and mentor, and provide positive reinforcement. Critical feedback should be clear, specific and constructive to enable learning and development.

(c) Challenge beliefs and assumptions. Question your own and others’ assumptions; recognise blind spots; be open to alternatives; show a willingness to change; and share lessons learned. Our actions are guided by our assumptions about why things are the way they are or why people do what they do. Challenging our assumptions can lead to different interpretations and different approaches to what we do and how we relate.

(d) Create a safe environment that promotes trust. Be consistent in your behaviour; act as a role model for the behaviours that are desired; value opinions even if they are different from your own; and show integrity.

(e) Help others understand how their work relates to the achievement of organisational goals. Explain how tasks contribute to organisational goals; and acknowledge others’ contributions.

Gibbs reflective cycle

This is a useful framework for reflection that is simple, yet comprehensive. It includes a series of questions that you can ask yourself when you practice reflection alone, or that can be used by a trusted manager or peers to support your self-reflection. See the diagram elsewhere in the page.

These are the components.


Ask yourself what happened. Describe a scenario in which you were uncomfortable, uncertain or feel that you could have managed differently. Don’t make judgements yet or try to draw conclusions; simply describe.


What were you thinking and feeling at the time? How did the situation affect you? Again, don’t move on to analysing these yet.


What was good or bad about the experience? What went well? What didn’t go so well? Now you can start making some value judgements.


What sense can you make of the situation? What assumptions have you made to explain what happened or what you did? What other interpretations could you make? Generate as many explanations as you can.


What can be concluded from these experiences and the analyses you have undertaken? What else could you have done?

Action plan

What are you going to do differently in this type of situation next time? What steps are you going to take on the basis of what you have learnt?

So, make reflection a regular part of your self-development as a way of improving your performance, and building competence and confidence. And if there isn’t sufficient time to make reflection a regular practice, see if you can at least use it when things are not going as well as you might like or to help you make sense of unsettling situations

Develop reflection

Reflecting is an important enough activity for you to spend time doing it. Some leaders find that reflecting on and learning as much as they can from their experiences is difficult because:

They’ve so much to do and feel under pressure to complete their workload and hit deadlines. They arfe no pressing deadline for the activity of reflecting and so it can keep dropping towards the bottom of the ‘to do’ list. They don’t appreciate the value of reflecting.

However, these are not valid reasons.

So, make time every day to reflect on and learn from your experiences of the day and get into the habit of asking yourself questions such as the following: What did I do well today? What could I have done better? What action(s) did I take that helped me and/or my team succeed? What action(s) should I have taken, and what were the outcomes or consequences of my inactivity? What would I do differently if I were in a similar situation again? What have I discovered from reflecting on today’s experiences?

Developing skills in reflecting

Become a more skilful reflector by starting to do the following activities:

Being more self-aware. Practise noticing what you do in, for example, meetings. Do you tend to speak up more or less than your colleagues? Reflection involves looking back into your experiences, and so you may want to conduct a review of your contribution to a meeting after the meeting finishes or even during the meeting itself. However, be careful to avoid becoming so engrossed in yourself that you miss important points being made by your colleagues on the topics being discussed.

Questioning yourself. As you become more aware of your behaviour in meetings and other situations, question yourself about the reasons for behaving the way you do in these situations. Questioning yourself about the assumptions or beliefs that cause you to behave as you do provide valuable insights intowhether your assumptions and beliefs are valid... or whether you need to change some of them!

Noticing what’s significant. People who are skilled in reflecting on situations or events are able to pick out the actions that were significant in contributing to or causing or affecting the outcomes of each situation. Taking meetings as an example, outcomes may include such things as decisions made, the commitment of individuals to take the actions that were agreed, the attitude of attendees towards the value of the meeting and much more.

Practise your skills. Notice what’s significant by observing and noting down how people act and react to each other and what’s said in meetings. Examine your notes after the meeting to identify connections or ‘causes and effects’ between the points you note, and use your analysis to enhance your understanding of how individuals are influencing and being influenced by the arguments, actions and behaviour of people at the meeting.

Listen actively. The next time you go along to a professional gathering or event, actively listen to what others from different industries to your own say. See whether you can include one or two of their ideas in your own situation.

Calm your mind. Being reflective doesn’t involve thinking about and planning what tasks you’re going to do next: reflecting is a backward-looking and not a forward-looking activity. When you’re busy, reflecting can be difficult because your mind is full of things you have to do, and so initially you need to practise clearing or calming your mind as follows:

Find a calm or quiet place in which you can be reflective. Choose a place where your mind won’t be distracted: perhaps a quiet office, a quiet corner of a café, your journey home on the train or somewhere similar.

Relax your body. Settle into a comfortable chair. Take a few deep breaths and feel any tension leave your body as you slowly exhale. Let go of irrelevant thoughts by refocusing on the situation or event on which you’re reflecting.

Writing brief notes. This is about the situation and focusing your thoughts on your notes help you to stay focused.

Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 35 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer.

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