Reflection – the difference between leaders and managers

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines reflection as the "examination, contemplation, and analysis of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions". It is a creative process that enables people to get to know themselves and their actions better with the benefit of making connections between experience and the potential consequences of that experience in the future.

We might ask whether managers need to know themselves that well to do their jobs. Perhaps they do since they are responsible for the achievement of important objectives in the organisation.

But we would argue, it is even more imperative for leaders to examine the consequences of their actions. The blind spots that a leader has can cast a whole team, business, or even country into disarray.

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In a 2006 article for The Journal for Quality and Participation, James Kotterman describes management as a relatively new phenomenon, an emergent role to help cope with present-day complex organisations, while calling leadership one of "the world’s oldest preoccupations".

It’s a nice distinction, resonating from antiquity to the present day, allowing us to remember the good that leaders can do as they help orientate the hearts and minds of ‘followers’ towards a noble cause.

So, the distinction in the two roles gives us clues as to how their approach to reflection differs: managers invest in others to increase operational effectiveness, whereas leaders inspire and motivate others to contribute to the organisation’s success.

Both must consider whether the proposed tactical action; expenditure, hiring or firing, building or decommissioning, are the right things to do.

But while we might hope that managers also reflect on the moral and ethical ramifications of their actions; for leaders this consideration is essential. Leaders absolutely must reflect in order to set the right direction, motivate and inspire.

The reflection process of a successful leader, then, inherently involves exploring a much wider and more profound landscape than that of the manager.

The depth and breadth of the reflection is of crucial importance. It must be goal orientated, and informed by moral and ethical frameworks.

Leaders must consider the rightness of actions: the impact on psychological and physical wellbeing, planetary health, the legacy of self and organisation, the alignment of the proposed action with core values.

That is the difference. Someone with the title manager may well be a leader, and someone with the title leader, may well be a manager.

The distinction is in the nature of their reflections: sometimes deep, sometimes with the help of a critical friend, but always followed by principled action.

If a manager gets it wrong, it may go unnoticed or quickly put right, but if a leader gets it wrong, the results can be quite catastrophic.

For leaders to be truly effective and useful, the capacity for quality reflection is essential.

The world has no time now to acquiesce to the machinations of the self-serving: we need leaders who are selfless, who understand the meaning of service, who can be brave because it is the right thing to do – and have chosen ‘rightness’ as a result of consistent reflection.

Mike McLaughlin and Elaine Cox are leadership development experts and co-authors of Braver Leaders in Action: Personal & Professional Development for Principled Leadership