How and why to become a reflective leader

This month, Cara McCarthy explores what reflective leadership is all about and offers ideas for regular habits you can use to enhance your leadership impact and improve your overall wellbeing.

This builds on her article last month: How to lead in a world that’s gone beyond VUCA to BANI.

What does reflection mean?

The origin of the word ‘reflection’ means ‘the act of bending back’.

When you reflect you are pausing to look back on your experience of a situation so you can notice many more of the details than you could in the moment.

John Dewey, the American educational philosopher and author of How we Think, said this as far back as 1910:

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

By reflecting on an experience, you extend and deepen that experience and are able to integrate new learnings into your thoughts, habits and behaviours.

Benefits of reflection

It’s fairly intuitive to assume that anything which enables you to gain more mental and emotional clarity and a greater sense of authorship of your own life, is good for you and for your relationships.

In practice, ‘bending back’ in reflection helps you slow down long enough to catch up with yourself and gain new perspective on important moments.

It is a practical way of switching your locus of control from ‘out there’ where you’re at the mercy of external forces, to ‘in me’ where you have choices. There are many benefits to your mental health, but at the very least, taking time to reflect will boost your sense of control and agency and can help to manage anxiety or a feeling of overwhelm.

All of us bring leadership to the different spheres of our life, whether in our workspaces, families or communities. Paying attention to your experiences in a reflective way is crucial to building leadership effectiveness because it is all about being willing to learn and adapt based on what you discover about yourself, your responses and your impact.

Think of your own experiences of working alongside a reflective leader. What was that like? Now think back to a time you worked with a non-reflective leader. What was the impact on you, your colleagues, or the workplace?

From my experience of working with many leaders in different environments, I have noticed that reflective leaders are more empowered and thoughtful about the ways they choose to interact, which enables them to get the best out of any situation or relationship.

Building a habit of reflection will change how people experience you.

  • You will become more attuned to your emotions, triggers and reactive patterns and have a better grasp on how to handle them
  • You will become better at engaging well with different viewpoints and more constructive in conflict
  • People will feel you are much more present in the way you interact with them and adapt to what is happening around you
  • You will show up with more energy and purpose which will engender confidence in others

Reflective processes

The ability to reflect on your thoughts, feelings and actions is a cornerstone to emotional intelligence (for more on this, please follow the link below to Rose’s article on EI teams).

A common misconception is that creating reflective space in your leadership diary is arduous, time-consuming and maybe even impossible.

In fact, it’s the opposite. As a leader, you are too busy NOT to reflect! When you press the pause button, you go slow to go fast – and to check that you’re on the road you actually want to be on! When you step back, things often come into perspective, and you can see more clearly.

In reality, there are many easy ways to become more reflective in your leadership style.

As a starting point, here are three simple yet powerful processes that any leader can build into their regular habits to do a quick self-check.

Donald Schon, a leading M.I.T social scientist and consultant, coined the phrases reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action and reflection-for-action. I’ve used all of them with my coaching clients and regularly hear back how useful and easy to apply these habits are.

Reflection IN action

This is about being more present and adaptable in the moment, so tune into what’s going on for you and how you’re responding. Notice your body language. Pay attention to the emotions you’re feeling. Listen to your choice of words and how your feelings may be leaking into your tone of voice.

Are you feeling defensive, nervous or frustrated? If yes, what impact is that having on the quality of your conversations? Remind yourself what this conversation is in service of. What do you need to adjust to get a better outcome?

Also pay attention to small cues from the other people in the conversation. Are you getting your message across? If no, adjust your style accordingly. How can you adapt your behaviour to enable others in the conversation to free up their own thinking? Perhaps shift from a telling approach to asking more questions, for example.

The intention is not to be manipulative, but to create an environment where you and the other person can think well, together.

Reflection ON action

Book half an hour into your calendar at the end of each week where you can stop and reflect on the week just gone.

Play the movie of your week back. Think about a success, something that went well, and bank it. Recall the things you did, said or thought that contributed to that positive outcome, and ask yourself where you could do more of that.

Think about conversations that didn’t go as well as they could, and problems you didn’t handle quite so well. Ask yourself questions, such as:

  • What was my intention?
  • How did I show up?
  • How did that impact the outcome?
  • What did it feel like for the other person and how did it influence their responses?
  • What can I learn from that?
  • What can I do differently next time?

Another way to do this is in conversation, for example, with your coach or an accountability partner from inside or outside your organisation. Reflection does not need to be a solo sport!

Reflection FOR action

This is the opposite of the practice I’ve just described. It can be useful at the beginning or end of each week to look at the week ahead.

Choose something you want to be more thoughtful about. Identify a situation, relationship or meeting where you’d like to have more purpose and impact. Reflect on what would help you engage more constructively with that person you’re struggling with. Note down an intent you want to hold for that situation.

Having thought about it, you can go into the following week knowing you can take action in a constructive way.

These three keys to cultivating a mindset of reflection help you be present to what’s going on in your inner and outer world. The aim is to integrate them into your regular practice.

Head, heart, hand

Sometimes, to really get the gold from an experience, you need to pause for longer and go a bit deeper. It often helps to have a simple framework that you can use, like a map. The three reflective domains of Head, Heart and Hand shown below are channels to access different ways of ‘knowing’ and of getting deeper into the experience.

Head Heart Hand

  • Head: Represents your thoughts
  • Heart: Represents your emotions and the values you hold
  • Hand: Represents your physical sensations and the somatic experience you’re having

In each domain, there is a series of questions you can ask yourself when you look back on conversations and situations that have happened. Also think about these questions in relation to the other party. Try to empathise and step into their shoes.

It’s a simple way of doing a deeper self-dive now and again, especially useful when you’re experiencing signs of not having caught up with yourself in a while, such as feeling confused, disconnected from your purpose, feeling a little out of control, or noticing a need to control small details. Be courageous and brave when you reflect on something challenging, because that’s when you’ll find the most precious treasure!

“Buried under the dragon’s foot is always a gem.”
Margaret Heffernan

In the head space

Here, you’re in more of a cognitive, analytical mode. Ask yourself:

  • What are the facts about what actually happened?
  • What were my intentions?
  • What actions did I take and what were the consequences?
  • How have I responded to that?
  • What does that reveal about my general patterns of thought?
  • Are there any beliefs, assumptions or biases I detect in myself based on that?
  • Is it possible that I have some blind spots?
  • Is there someone I can check with?

In the heart space

In this space, you’re trying to break beneath a purely cognitive analysis to understand how the experience impacted you, how you showed up, and what that tells you about your values or your need for further development and growth.

  • How would you describe your emotions during the situation? Were you feeling surprised, distressed, angry, defensive, pleased, confident… ? How do you know?
  • How would you describe your emotions now, as you reflect after the event?
  • How did your emotions influence your thoughts and actions in the moment?
  • How did your actions align with your personal values and core beliefs?
  • How emotionally intelligent were your responses? e.g. self–awareness, self–regulation, motivation, empathy, and relationship management.
  • Is there anything you would wish to approach differently? How?

If you’re the type of person who struggles to name your emotions (this varies across individuals and cultures), a useful tool is the ‘feelings wheel’. The basic emotions are shown in the centre, with increasingly subtle nuances in the outer rings. Why not print this off and have it somewhere you can access easily – it is so useful!

The Feeling Wheel

The Feeling Wheel developed by Dr Gloria Willcox, The Gottman Institute

In the hand space

It’s natural for most people to ‘camp out’ in one domain over another. Most of us naturally think from the head or the heart. We tend to forget that we are people with heads and hearts who live in a body!

The ‘hand’ is a shortcut for ‘paying attention to the body’ – so take time to notice those physical sensations that tell you what’s going on for you, such as a fluttering tummy, excited foot-tapping or passive aggressive throat-clearing.

The brain works in myriad ways to bring important data to our attention, so pay attention to ‘unusual’ pieces of information too. Perhaps you’re on a call with your boss and a forgotten memory of your old geography teacher comes to mind! Or a difficult situation from an earlier part of your career resurfaces. As these come back into your awareness, you might experience a strong emotional reaction, or even become aware of a smell or see a particular colour. Be curious about that. There is insight to be found in all of it.

There are many non-cognitive, right-brain ways to access this kind of somatic knowing…

  • Were you aware (then and now) of any physical sensations in your body?
  • Where would you say the energy in your body was? In your hands, your stomach, chest…?
  • What about images or specific colours?
  • Old memories resurfacing or associations with other events?
  • How might any and all of these somatic data connect with your issue?
  • Next time, what would you do more of / less of / differently?

Get creative with it

Often, we make the mistake of thinking of the act of reflection as being limited to an analytical process where you detach yourself from the experience and look at it as if you were a lab scientist. That’s not it at all! Reflection is not merely cognitive, it involves the whole of who you are as a person.

We all have our own way of processing information, whether internal or external, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. There’s a real diversity of ways you can engage with your own reflectivity, which links with your own personal preferences.

If you’re naturally analytical, you’ll enjoy the structured process of Head, Heart, Hand. But you don’t have to be analytical about it. You can be as creative as you wish. Here are some ideas…

If you’re more right-brained, you could wander around an art gallery while holding a question in your mind, and find you’ll get a new and inspiring insight. Similarly, poetry can be a powerful way to reflect in a creative manner. Here’s a favourite poem by the extraordinary poet, Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, and another by the poet-philosopher, David Whyte, called Sometimes.

There is a science behind low-cognitive demand tasks such as knitting, running, walking, and colouring-in. These are not just idle activities. They are valuable times when your brain can quietly process and integrate information revealed to you via Head, Heart and Hand.

And, of course, there can be magic in the silence…

John Cage’s famous ‘Symphony of Silence’ is three acts lasting a total of 4 minutes 33 seconds where the orchestra put down their instruments and the audience members listen to whatever they hear around them.

A mindful self-coaching technique is to hold a question in your mind in relation to a recent experience. Set a timer that lasts 4 minutes 33 seconds and simply sit and tune into the ‘silence’ (complete with birdsong and motorbikes going past your window). Just notice what’s going on in and around you. When the time is up, return to your question and notice what is there now.

You are the author of your destiny

“One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.”
Mole, from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

It was recently pointed out to me that the word “authority” can be written “author-ity”.

When you understand that, for the most part, you are the author of your own story, you will step into a greater sense of your own authority. Through a regular habit of reflection you are more likely to:

  • Connect with and live from your creative capacities
  • Focus on your purpose and align your goals with your values
  • Take responsibility for your thoughts and actions
  • Cultivate productive and mutually enriching relationships
  • Positively and purposefully shape the culture around you

By the way, Rose and I are both qualified in ‘The Leadership Circle’ which is a way to explore your own profile around your creative and reactive tendencies so you can author your own story. You’ll find more about this at the link below.


Going back to last month’s article about How to lead in a world that’s gone beyond VUCA to BANI, building a reflective mindset and practicing reflective habits are crucial for leading well in a world that is increasingly Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, and Incomprehensible.

There are no silver bullets, but I think it’s reasonable to say that reflective leaders are more able to respond and adapt to a BANI world than non-reflective leaders who keep doing what they’ve always done because they never learn.

I hope you find this information useful – why not reflect on it!

Related reading

For more on this topic, please see Rose’s previous articles:

Next month

How to build your gravitas, impact and presence.