A Reflection on Reflective Leadership

I have a confession to make. I attend Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summits for very selfish reasons. I have come to experience and appreciate the annual event as a personal retreat. Okay, it is a personal retreat taking place in the midst of several hundred people. Never forget the words, though, of the world famous Anonymous who said, “Even in a crowd, you are alone inside your own head.” (Kudos to the Tamarack team for another extraordinary event last month in Vancouver!)

When I attend this Tamarack event I am in a continuous state of reflection and inner dialogue. 

Filling in for Tamarack's Liz Weaver, I got to facilitate

Filling in for Tamarack’s Liz Weaver, I had the privilege of facilitating “Collective Impact from Around the World,” which featured (from my left to right): Nicola Taylor (New Zealand); Valerie Quay (Singapore); Per Holm (Denmark); and, Te Ropu Poa (New Zealand).

This dialogue is informed and shaped by the people I meet, the conversations I have, my observations, and my experiences at the event. I can appear to be busy on the outside and at this year’s event I was quite busy: I facilitated a daily “Learning Lab” consisting of ten other participants; led a workshop; was a late substitute facilitator for another workshop; and hosted a dinner conversation. Through all of this I was still alone inside my own head…and loving it!!!

In recent years my work has led me to a more intentional practice of reflection and a deeper appreciation for the role of reflection in leadership. For most of my life I have been a Quaker, a member of a group known for its use of meditative silence. However, only recently have I come to more fully connect reflection and leadership. The first point of connection was when I was conducting and writing up my doctoral research on leadership in the intractable conflict over sexuality education in the United States. In that study I found that leaders of sexual health organizations, who are engaged in the conflict, are quite reflective. They are involved in three interactive reflective processes that affect their leader motivations and behaviors, and, yet, contributes to perpetuating the conflict.

The second point of connection was about a year ago when a colleague and I were working together on a “mindfulness” curriculum for teachers at the Transylvania College in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In the process of editing the material I found myself learning more about the practice of mindful reflection and how it related to leadership in the classroom. It inspired me to learn more about both mindfulness practices and reflective leadership.

The third point of connection came earlier this year when I was trying to answer the dreaded question I get from prospective clients: “How much do you charge?” I usually want to say, “Just enough,” because, in fact, it is true. When I moved into consulting work I wanted to stay to true to my personal mission of working on behalf of nonprofit organizations, especially those that can benefit from high quality leadership and organizational development assistance but usually cannot afford the rates charged by large consulting groups. To this end I did my research and I came up with a rate that meets my needs (not my “wants,” to be sure, or else I would not still be driving an eleven year old Subaru) and which rarely gets any push back from my clients.

The process of thinking through an answer to the question of “How much do you charge?” led me, not surprisingly, to a reflection on the values I bring to my work. This resulted in the creation of the TRIBE Guarantee that I offer every client.

When we intentionally embrace mindful reflection as part of our leadership approach there are two benefits that are nearly immediate. First, we are driven to think more carefully about the alignment of our values with our leadership behavior. It pushes us to consider the things we are doing as a leader in light of who we are being as a person. It calls us to look at how we treat followers, colleagues, and those whom we are trying to help or lift up. Even more, it can help us be more present to each. Overall, mindful reflection can inspire us to more authentic leadership.

The second benefit becomes apparent when we are trying to provide leadership in a collaborative effort, such as a Collective Impact initiative. Even on the best days, it can feel like we are one of those legendary cat herders of Western lore.

On more challenging days, those in which we are running severely low on patience and good humor, reflection can save us from damaging over-reactions. Edgar Schein advocates for the practice of suspension which is a reflective process of internal listening that needs to precede response. Suspension is a particularly useful skill in those circumstances when we have been in an interaction that we perceive to be negative (e.g., disagreement, challenge, attack, etc.). Schein writes, “We have to learn to listen to ourselves before we can really understand others.”

These two benefits of reflection are related. Becoming a more reflective, authentic leader will affect our efforts in collective leadership by inspiring us to build relational trust and act more ethically in all of our behaviors. Who can say these are not good things?

Be greater. Do good. Every day.

T.W.K.

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