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Reflection and its role in leadership

by Simon Middlemas, Sport Psychologist


Reflection, to many, is synonymous with self-reflection. We hold a mirror up to ourselves and our actions and try to look back for insight. But in a mirror, reflection presents an exact replica of what is in front of it. In truth, reflection shows you not what is, but what might be, a improvement on the original experience. It is not about looking back per say, but about improvement and to transformation. More than just looking back or thinking about an activity, reflection is emotional and physical, and is linked with our values and social identity.

So, how do we do it effectively? To attempt to answer to this, I would like to share a story.

Writing this article, I recalled a funny story told to me by my first mentor, a man called Jim. We worked together at a professional football club together, and he was a great educator and gentle leader of people. Some few years back, facing a mountain of stress and problems, Jim read about this new-fangled concept in a leadership book, called Reflective Practice. It blew his mind. The book said that to become a great leader he needed to find time to reflect every day. Walk your dog. Sit in a forest. Swim a mile. Bike to work.

Jim hated walking (too slow) and swimming (too cold) and like many leaders, he found the thought of sitting still for any amount of time quite appalling. So, he left his car on the road and took his bike. Without his car, he reasoned, his 15-minute journey to the office was now 60 minutes; a whole hour of uninterrupted alone time in which to think and reflect. Perfect for finding the answer to his problems. So, he biked through the park every day with his phone on silent and reflected on his ungrateful coaches, his spoilt athletes, his unsupportive boss and his unmotivated colleagues. How do I solve these problems? At the end of his bike rides, he would write down his thoughts and actions, as instructed. But by the end of the first week, Jim felt angry thinking about these problems and the people who caused them. 

Too frustrated to reflect, he downloaded gardeners question time onto his iPod. It always calmed him. The next day, lost in a discussion on bark composting and worms, the brake cable snapped on his bike. Jim freewheeled down a steep hill with a sense of impending doom and ploughed into a duck pond. And it was there, waist deep amongst the duck poo and litter, thoroughly wet and embarrassed, that he had the moment of clarity he was searching for. What if I am the problem? he thought. He sat for a minute or so and then laughed at the situation he was in. Twenty minutes later, he squelched into work, and quit, telling all who would listen he was off to become a landscape gardener.

I will never know how much of this story is true, as my friend passed away last year, but I thought about this a lot recently, and what I took from it is this. While reflection is important, you simply can’t force it.

Man cycling up mountain road


I have used, taught, researched and promoted reflective practice all my professional life. I think there is real power in it, and I see it as a cornerstone of excellence, in leadership and beyond. But for me, reflection doesn’t work the way we are led to believe it will. It is such a ubiquitous term in modern leadership language, and it suffers for this fame. It is elusive. Hard to pin down. One thing is true, we have all been asked to do it and do it and do it, and at times, it’s pretty dull. In education, we talk about ‘death by PowerPoint’, an experience typified by a colleague reading line by line off slides to an audience, while they fight sleep in a hot lecture theatre. I think we have all experienced this, but maybe also a similar experience called ‘death by a reflective journal.’ 

But what do I mean by reflection? Donald Schön - an important contributor to this topic - identified two types of reflection: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. In reflection in action, the leader reflects on the action immediately upon encountering it (on the job, so to speak).  In contrast, reflection on action is done after experiencing the action, at a later time. Most people are familiar with this latter concept (reflecting-on-action), and it’s the one that seems to have a bad rep.  With more time, we can reflect to a greater extent on the feelings that led us to adopt a particular course of action, the way we framed the problem, or on the role we play in the wider culture of the organisation or society. We take this deep dive into an experience, to examine our feelings and thoughts, however uncomfortable they are, and emerged to take new insight and new questions into future practice. In reflective terms, the process spirals onwards infinitely, new questions emerging to take the place of the old.

But do we really change after our reflective activity? Did we take that insight and line it up against fresh perspectives, our values, experiences, beliefs and consider it in the larger context within which the questions are raised? Did we take our new-found clarity, and bring about real change, in attitude, in thought, in action? The truth is, probably not. Real change is hard. As human beings, we are hard wired to seek out familiar experiences and habitual forms of working. We revert to type, unless one day, the brakes fail, and we end up, like Jim, in the drink.

Maybe it comes down to this. Less is more. We need to be mindful that our reflective conversations with ourselves and others retain their power, and don’t become bogged down by dogma or structure. When it comes to reflective practice, maybe less is more. Rather than reflecting for its own sake, we should try to inject fresh information, or a new lens, into our daily working life, to stimulate reflection, to spark our curiosity, rather than to see it as a way to achieve an outcome. Seek out feedback from the colleague who sees the world differently, who might not even like you. Before you reach for another leadership text, is there greater inspiration to be gained from a webinar on volcanos or a wildlife documentary? Swop your car for a bike and listen to gardener’s question time on the radio (but never at the same time of course). In short, focus on curiosity for its own sake, rather than reflection itself. In doing so, we engage in reflection less as a method or technique that we associate with great leadership, but more of an inherent part of what it means to lead.

The author:

Dr Simon Middlemas is a Sport Psychologist at Sport Wales and a Lecturer at Cardiff Met University.  


Göker, S. D., & Bozkuş, K. (2017). Reflective leadership: Learning to manage and lead human organizations. Contemporary leadership challenges, 27-45.

Knapp, M. S., Copland, M. A., & Talbert, J. E. (2003). Leading for Learning: Reflective Tools for School and District Leaders. CTP Research Report.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. Jossey-Bass.