Reflection as a leadership practice

Posted Aug 28, 2014 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Debora Jackson

Debora JacksonWhat practices are critical to your success as a leader? What traits and attributes help you to be a good leader?

Some would say that good listening skills positively impact leadership. Some might say being knowledgeable in the work helps them to help others. Some might say that they have the God-given gift of leadership through which they confidently lead and motivate others to follow. Each of these traits is important, but would it have occurred to you to say that you are a good leader because you take time to reflect?

Leadership theorists Chris Argyris and Donald Schön observe that “All human beings need to become competent in taking action and simultaneously reflecting on this action to learn from it.”1 They note that in order to be effective in the long term, leaders need to learn new ways of managing the dynamics of a changing environment. Those new ways come to us as we reflect. As we take an action, we have to reflect to visualize and predict its consequences. What do we expect to happen as a result of some decision that we make in our leadership? Answering this question is the first step. Then we have look backwards to examine the assumptions and behaviors that govern our actions. What motivated our decision? Will that motivation help us achieve the desired outcome of our action? We need to reflect by comparing our forward and backward views to identify anything that impedes our ability to change. What will work? What must we do better? As we create space for that learning through the practice of reflection, we are made more effective as leaders.

I know what you’re thinking: “Who has time for all this thoughtful reflection in the midst of leading?” I get it. I felt the same way, but two insights changed my thoughts. First was an understanding of the realities of decision-making in organizations. More than half the decisions made in organizations fail, and many are abandoned after two years.2 In our rush, we operate in a culture of snap judgments or gut feelings and yet we are no better off than we would have been had we taken the time to be more reflective in our decision making.

The second insight came through my faith. In Mark 6:31, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Can you imagine? The disciples had just returned from the leadership task that Jesus had given then. They were excited about their mission, and they wanted to share the results. But Jesus stopped them and encouraged them to come away from their leadership context, thus creating space for rest and reflection.

There is something restorative about the opportunity to reflect. When we reflect, we become more discerning about our leadership. When we reflect, we can generate options and try on ideas almost like slipping on a jacket and testing the fit. When we reflect, we give ourselves the opportunity to separate the good from the better. When we reflect, we emerge with greater clarity and confidence because we have become more considerate of the options and can prepare for the better way forward.

1Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schon, Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1974), 4.

2Margaret Benefiel, Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations, (New York, NY: Seabury Books, 2005), 50.

The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is Executive Director of the Ministers Council, American Baptist Churches, USA, an autonomous, professional, multi-cultural organization of ordained, commissioned and lay Christian leaders serving American Baptist Churches. The author of the forthcoming Judson Press book, Spiritual Practices for Leadership Effectiveness: 7 Rs of Sanctuary for Pastors, Deborah will be a presenter at Peer Power: Cultivating Clergy Communities of Practice.

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