Wright, N. (2003) ‘Mirror Mirror: Reflective Practice in Leadership’, Edge, Institute of Leadership & Management, Spring, Vol 2, Issue 2, p35.
Imagine, for a moment, walking through a scientific laboratory where strict, logic-bound principles create a calming environment of predictability and certainty. Picture relaxed movement, clinical white-coats, test tubes and a peaceful silence broken only by the occasional clink of glass under a microscope.
Now, as if jolted violently from your dream-like state, re-awake into the alarming, screaming turbulence of your life as leader. The chaotic, helter-skelter ride that characterises the leadership challenge can leave us breathless, insecure and exhausted. No fixed laws to work from and a constant clamour for decisions can be a terrifying prospect – certainly not a vocation for the faint-hearted.
Staring resolutely into the glaring face of on-going change with eyes straining to avoid the first blink, we stand firm in our leadership stance with heart pounding and gritted determination: “I will be brave – I will not give in to fear!” is the hopeful, unspoken chant beneath our breath.
Paradoxically, our determination to remain strong as we brace ourselves against the ravages of organisational life can be the very thing that makes us most brittle and fragile. We do well to remember the proverb: “It’s not the wind that determines direction but the set of the sail”. Riding the waves, not halting their movement, is the secret to the surfer’s success.
So what does this mean in our organisations? What can we do to transcend those very things that threaten to engulf us? In response, I will offer two short, understated words: reflective practice. “What - is that it?”, you might ask. “Isn’t there a theory, a model, a formula, a solution?”
It’s true – reflective practice doesn’t sound very sexy when compared with some more popular titles, especially those that include words like ‘instant’, ‘power’ and ‘success’. Nevertheless, I have become convinced that reflective practice is an approach that really can transform our leadership experience, insight and capabilities.
Reflective practice is, at heart, reflection in the context of practice (Moon, 2002). Schon (1987)distinguishes betweenreflecting on practice (e.g. “What happened?”) and reflecting in practice (e.g. “What is happening?”). Some writers also add reflection before practice (e.g. “What do we need to think about before we do this?”).
The important principle is to switch off the mental ‘auto-pilot’ and do some conscious, deliberate, critical reflection before decision-making. When presented with a complex and bewildering situation, our natural reaction may be:
Cognitive reflection: "I think this is really confusing." Emotional reflection: "I'm feeling really confused." Defensive response: "I must hide my confusion from others so I don't look incompetent." In contrast, a reflective response could be:
Reflective response: "Is there something inherently confusing about this situation that may need to be addressed before we can move forward?"
The reflective response opens up new possibilities for exploration, insight and action that would have been closed down automatically by a defensive response. Unfortunately, defensive responses can be our default reaction, especially in situations where we feel pressured, threatened or vulnerable. This means that reflective responses often require determined decision-making beforehand: “I will make space to reflect before I act.”
The reflective response is often framed in the form of a question and a useful technique that I use is to stop, where possible, and suspend decision-making momentarily by asking myself, “I wonder what this might mean…” before launching into action mode. This really has made a difference in my leadership – I would recommend it to others too.