Practicing Reflective Leadership

Popular wisdom tells us, “You shouldn’t make a major decision during a crisis.”  I’m not sure I completely agree with this adage.

In fact, I wonder how many critical decisions would be made if our lives weren’t disrupted in some way.

During one of the most painful times in my adult life, I made an impractical decision to go back to school to study for my MA in Leadership. It was in that tight-knit community of adult learners, leaders from across Canada, where I began to reflect on my life and unpack the hurt accumulated after years of Christian ministry.

That decision, made during a major upheaval, became a defining experience for me as a leader.  And although I don’t recall a specific course or teaching on ‘reflective leadership,’ I left that experience with a deep appreciation for the necessity of reflection in the role of a leader.sreynolds

One of our first assignments was to keep a learning journal. It is a practice I have continued for the past five years. In our journal we were instructed to not only write about our experiences and what we learned through our readings and lectures, but we were also directed to reflect on where we demonstrated the leadership competencies we were studying.

One of our leadership competencies was Personal Leadership, defined as: the ability to be self aware, able to create constructive relationships with others and practice ethically, responsibly and with accountability.  At the end of our residency we were expected to document thoroughly, using our learning journals, feedback from faculty and peer learners, and literature, how we demonstrated these leadership competencies.

I’ve heard it said that consuming information without reflection is self-indulgent. A sobering thought in our world where we skim infographics, Google alerts and headlines. We download apps that help us curate information on our favourite topics (e.g., Feedly, Pinterest) and have entire libraries at our disposal on our smart phones and tablets. At the same time we seek out meditation and mindfulness practices to help us calm our minds.

Reflective leadership is a way of approaching the work of being a leader by learning to be present and to be aware of what you are feeling, experiencing and thinking.

Reflective leadership is the balance to action.

As I became more intentional about keeping a learning journal, I had Post-it notes plastered around my desk with sayings like:  “Get curious about what you are feeling” or “What would a leader do now?” or “What is the question that, if I had the answer, would set me free?”

I do a lot of journaling focused on what story I am telling myself in challenging circumstances. I’ve discovered that the story often has someone else as the cause of my problems!   That discovery led to the Post-it note, “Focus on the ‘I’”.

Organizational behaviour consultant Margaret Wheatley wrote, “Noticing what disturbs me has been an incredibly useful lens into my interior, deeply-held beliefs. When I’m shocked at another’s position, I have the opportunity to see my own position in greater clarity. When I hear myself saying, How could anyone believe something like that?! a doorway has opened for me to see what I believe. These moments of true disturbance are great gifts. In making my beliefs visible, they allow me to consciously choose them again, or change them” (2000. Disturb Me Please).

A reflective leader knows that there is strength in being observant and introspective.

This practice isn’t just the domain of introverts and mystics. Anyone can cultivate the disciplines of reflection by focusing on experiences with the intention of making sense of them, learning from them and becoming more self-aware.

This can be a challenge in our busy lives.  A simple place to begin is to schedule ten minutes at the end of the work day and reflect on a few questions such as:

  • Where did I feel the most energy today?
  • How is it that I get along with some people and not with others?
  • What was difficult for me today and why?
  • What did I feel most proud of today?
Reflection is at the core of learning and adaptation.

I’ve spent twenty years in adult education and I know the role of reflection in learning. As leaders in complex systems we are constantly learning and adapting.  Leaders in these complex systems will greatly benefit from reflection Educator Jane Vella, who has written extensively on dialogue education. Dialogue is at the heart of what I do in my work with The FIELD Collaborative.

One of the most influential books on education was written by the Brazilian educator Paolo Friere.  He wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (Friere, 2000, p.87).

Is it a stretch to think that as we practice reflection in our leadership we will speak our truth and transform the world?

Maybe that is a good place to start reflecting!


Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1970.
Vella, Jane.  Learning to Listen Learning to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.


Picture28Sandy Reynolds
Sandy is the President of The FIELD Collaborative (@FIELDupdates). Sandy has a MA in Leadership from Royal Roads University.  She has over 20 years’ experience in learning & development with some of Canada’s top organizations. Her clients include: Shoppers Drug Mart, Air Canada, Rotman College, Knightsbridge Consulting, St. Michael’s Hospital and World Vision Canada.  She believes that improving performance in any business happens one conversation at a time.


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