The role of reflection in leadership success

In our series of personal development columns we ask careers and coaching experts for their advice on getting ahead

Digitalisation, artificial intelligence and other technological changes are forcing leaders to deal with highly disruptive situations.

Research shows that leaders who take the time to reflect on past events stand out in their ability to test assumptions and make connections between seemingly unrelated events; a critical skill for success in this uncertain world.

What is reflection?

Reflection is a structured process aimed at increasing our insights and learning. It’s about taking a step back to systematically review past events. To get the most value from our reflections we must ensure we move beyond the surface level of what happened.

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There are six steps in the reflective learning process:

1. A short descriptive stage where we focus on what happened during the situation.

2. An examination stage where we focus on the feelings we experienced during the situation. For more advanced reflection we benefit from examining our feelings about the event shortly after it happened, and then after some time has passed.

3. An evaluation stage that explores what went well and less well in the situation. This helps us to adapt our actions to avoid making the same mistakes again.

4. An analysis and sense-making stage. This is an important part of the reflective learning process as it’s here the learner tests, validates or adjusts their own assumptions and views of the world.

5. A drawing conclusions stage about what else could have been done.

6. And finally, a future actions stage about what to do in future should a similar situation arise.


Reflective learning provides us with several benefits:

  • Learning faster and getting up to speed in new situations more quickly
  • Not making the same mistake twice
  • Being ready to deal with unfamiliar circumstances by recognising connections between seemingly unrelated situations
  • Questioning our assumptions and making better decisions.

When we are practiced enough at reflection we can start to reflect in the moment as a situation unfolds, making us more aware of our own and other people’s actions, feelings and assumptions.

Furthermore, if we are taking a reflective learning approach with our teams, we move from simply trying to fix problems and possibly attributing blame for things that went wrong, to creating joint insights and learning. Finally, as active reflectors, we act as role models for our teams who will benefit from this skill too, and in turn become more effective and faster learners.

The ultimate benefit of reflective learning in a world driven by speed is acceleration: by slowing down and actively reflecting on past events we maximise learning and accelerate our own development and effectiveness as leaders.

Making reflection work for busy executives

Find a format that works for you – use a paper or electronic journal or dedicated reflection app that can be accessed on the go. Alternatively, use a high-level mental framework that you can use without the need to write things down.

Find a time that works for you – a specific day each week, on the journey home, or at the end of a big project. Reflection doesn’t have to happen during office hours.

Ines Wichert is an occupational psychologist, MD of leadership development consultancy TalUpp, and author of Accelerated Leadership Development: How to Turn your Top Talent into Leaders