The importance of reflective thinking for leaders


Life is so fast these days, it’s difficult to find the time to stop and think. But if you’re a leader, it is more important than ever. Making decisions using reflective thinking is the process of drawing informed and logical action plans and assessing the consequences of those decisions. Experienced leaders can sometimes base decisions on gut instinct but that doesn’t mean you should do it all the time.

Psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman says: that acting on your gut can be risky. Kahneman says that “intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do.” It gives us confidence in our decision making; trouble is confidence is no predictor of accuracy.

Reflective leadership is an approach that invites leaders to be present and attentive to their decision-making process. It’s about self-awareness, self-challenge, and evaluating whether you are dealing with situations to your full potential.

Reflective leadership takes you away from biased opinions that have become rigid patterns in your thinking and instead puts you in a permanent state of learning. We know that leaders need to keep learning, or else they become stagnant. A leader who is stuck in their ways cannot adapt to the needs of an ever-changing workforce.

The most effective leaders reflect on their past experiences and search for similar instances, patterns, and themes before they make a decision, (Goker & Bozkus, 2017).

Why should I think reflectively?

Reflective thinking is an internal and external process of self-understanding. When done correctly, it improves critical thinking skills by encouraging you to look inwards to lead effectively outwards. It will help you determine what is important to you, as well as what’s important to your organization.

Considering your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors before you act – at work and at home – will help you better understand yourself and give you time to consider the best course of action before you do anything. Intentionally connecting with your past experiences will help you devise the best course of action based on your unique perspective.

A study by Horton-Deutsch & Sherwood (2008 and 2012) showed reflection in terms of thinking about one’s past experiences to develop a fuller understanding of what is known increases the potential for leadership capacity.

How do I become a reflective thinker?

If you’re interested in becoming a reflective leader, you should consider the following:

  • Am I practicing mindfulness?
  • Am I grounded to the truth and sticking to the facts?
  • Am I considering the context of my decision, as well as timing for the short- mid- and long-term consequences?
  • What have I learnt from past situations that can help in the present?
  • How can I make use of these lessons in future experiences?
  • How often am I present when I lead?

In 2005, Taggart and Wilson developed a reflective thinking model that perfectly depicts the reflective thinking process. You can try it right now.

Identify a problem or challenge you are facing and look at it from a third person perspective, then ask how an outsider, someone removed entirely from this situation, would view it. What would they advise you to do as an uninvested bystander?

Next, ask yourself what worked for you in similar situations, while carefully considering what is different about this situation. Crucially, also dissect what didn’t work in those instances.

Once you’ve identified possible approaches based on reflection of your past experiences, you can choose the best way to approach the issue you have right now.

Finally, you need to review previous similar situations you’ve handled. You can ask yourself and others involved if the situation was resolved in the best way. If it was, store that approach for future use. If not, consider carefully how you can avoid it happening again, leaning into any feedback your team may have.

It’s hard work and an ongoing process. You’ll have to do it every single time you’re presented with a decision to make.

The lost art of reflection – Reflective thinking for leaders

The endless tasks and responsibilities leaders face leave little time for artful reflection. So many CEOs and other leaders are slaves to their email and constantly putting out fires. Any downtime may be overwrought with thoughts of what to do next. This means you must be deliberate about making time for reflection. It is important you focus on processing the things you have learned. The time spent is also time saved as your decision-making becomes more productive and leaves fewer loose ends to tie up.

Dr John Behr, an executive coach with 25 years of experience coaching leaders, says:

“You must cultivate the art of reflection if you want to become the best leader you can be. Reflective thinking for leaders is largely about mindfulness and about being grounded in what is. . It is also about considering the bigger picture while making logical decisions for the good of the whole.

Reflective leaders need to listen to themselves while making informed and logical decisions. They must take to heart the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of others to achieve organizational and professional goals.”

Dr. John Behr is an experienced executive coach and has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies around the globe.

His work encourages self-discovery, resulting in lasting changes in performance and better leadership.

Dr. John Behr will draw up on your strengths and limitations with raw candor to help you improve your leadership style and get the best from your team.

For more information, please fill in the contact form on our ‘contact’ page.