How reflection is one of the key development tools for braver leadersHow reflection is one of the key development tools for braver leaders

Reflection is a thinking process that helps turn our experience into useful knowledge.

Reflection involves dedicated and structured thinking about events or encounters and an examination of the beliefs and values that influenced them. Reflection is therefore, very much a cognitive process that helps link previous action with new understanding.

Reflection also helps leaders to link this new understanding to future practice, helping them to improve what they do and how they do it. Through reflection they become more sensitive to the needs and requirements of their people and the organisation. By raising their awareness of their beliefs and values, and how they influence actions, leaders get to know themselves and their actions better and make connections between past experiences and the potential consequences of those experiences in the future.

Braver leaders, like other leaders, are motivated to develop themselves, just as they are focussed on developing others. However, it is particularly imperative for braver leaders to examine the consequences of their actions, since their focus on the avant-garde means retaining blind spots may compromise their braver vision and cast their teams and business opportunities into disarray. Braver leaders absolutely must reflect in order to set the right direction, motivate, and inspire – the key aspects of their job.

Without the self-awareness stimulated by reflection, braver leaders, like any of us, may tend to run on ‘auto-pilot’, whereas being self-aware allows them to assess situations more objectively and rationally.

The depth and breadth of the reflection is also of crucial importance. It must be goal oriented, and informed by moral and ethical frameworks. Braver leaders must consider the ‘rightness’ of actions: the impact on psychological and physical wellbeing, planetary health, the legacy of self and organisation, the alignment of the proposed action with core values.

The work of Schon (2017) is often used when discussing reflection since he observed two timeframes in which it can occur. The first is ‘reflection-in-action’ involving reflecting on issues as they happen and making decisions based on that brief reflective moment. The second is ‘reflection-on-action’ which has to be more deliberately scheduled after events in order to focus on deeper issues such as moral, ethical or political implications.

One method frequently described for effecting this second reflective approach involves holding conversations. Leaders may want to hold a conversation with themselves through the use of the written journal for instance, or they can make use of a mentor or critical friend who can act as a sounding board. In any case, the conversation needs to examine underlying values, beliefs, and assumptions of events or incidents in order to achieve a useful evaluation of the issues and not just a description or justification of what happened.

Most approaches to reflection involve structured steps such as: i) identifying and describing the issue/event; ii) comparison with other similar situations and looking for patterns; iii) framing and reframing the issue and confronting how things came to be this way; and iv) anticipating consequences and reconstructing alternative approaches and future goals.

This focus on action following a period of reflection is referred to as ‘reflexivity’ and was well defined by Ann Cunliffe in 2016 as: ‘questioning what we, and others, might be taking for granted—what is being said and not said—and examining the impact this has or might have.’  Like reflection it means examining assumptions and decisions, and actions and interactions, especially those underpinning the policies or practices of our organisation – but it also involves looking out for their intended and potentially unintended impacts and modifying action accordingly.

Summing up we could say that reflexivity works on two levels both of which are equally important.  The first is: ‘being self-reflexive about our own beliefs and values, and the nature of our relationships with others – what we say, and how we treat them’ and the second is ‘being critically reflexive about organizational practices, policies, social structures, and knowledge bases’ (Cunliffe, 2016).

Reflection and reflexivity are therefore both vital for braver leaders to re-evaluate events and decide on future courses of action. The nature of reflections is necessarily deep whether undertaken alone or with the help of a critical friend, but it is always followed by reflexive and principled action.

Elaine Cox
Elaine Cox

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