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The power of reflection in leadership

There is a critical path to develop as a leader. Crucially it includes being able to reflect on one’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. Reflection allows us to harness the power of our unconscious mind and helps us notice things we might otherwise ignore. In short, it develops better thinking and more timely action. In this blog post by Maria Lehto, the insights and guidance about reflective practices from Amara’s CEO Heidi Gutekunst are shared with the intention to be practical in helping you develop towards more reflective and aware leadership. The blog is based on the Reflektoinnin Voima -podcast episode 3, by Marjo Huhtala from Metropolia and Heidi’s practical experience about the use of images and writing in the reflective process.

Reflecting is a powerful tool for development, but what does it actually mean? According to Heidi, reflecting is stepping back and taking a moment to look at something more deeply, instead of rushing directly towards the issue, driven by the first impulse. “Reflecting doesn’t even have to be an active thing, it can just mean taking a pause to notice what emerges”, Heidi says. But honestly, how often do we do this in the organisational context? Very often our surroundings and other’s expectations push us to act – preferably as fast as possible – instead of taking a moment to step back and reflect. “When we’re in a reactive mode, we’re actually using less of our capacity to notice what is really happening around us”, Heidi explains. She notes that when we are reactive, our actions are often less impactful. This also works other way round: becoming more aware and conscious helps us act more intentionally. 

Reflection is seldom cultivated in the organisational context, so it’s even more vital for us personally to make it part of our routine. Just think about how much time, effort and human capacity could be used in better ways, if there was more attention on developing quality of thinking and to act more consciously. How many misunderstandings and harmful decisions could be avoided?

The power of reflection for enhancing maturity has been backed up by fascinating research in constructive developmental theory by Bill Torbert and many others. The psychological growth happens effortlessly when we are children but requires some intentional effort after we reach adulthood. As adults, we can facilitate our development by becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, relationships, the systems we are part of and the connections between all of these. But development is not just inside of us. Practice and concrete actions play an important role as well, as Heidi points out: “We must remember that consciousness is also about the way we interact. It’s about how we take advantage of and use this awareness in action, in relation to the outside world.”

“We must remember that consciousness is also about the way we interact”

Over time, we can develop the capacity to be simultaneously aware and reflective. You have surely found yourself in a situation where, despite good intentions, you didn’t act according to your values and aspirations. We all know how frustrating it can feel to notice afterwards that there could have been much better paths to take and reactions to engage in. Reflective practices can help us close this gap, or at least make it smaller. In addition to helping you act with more integrity, reflective practices can help you explore different perspectives and recognise your own assumptions. “Quite a few of the things we claim to be based on facts are actually just based on different assumptions, and this is true in our personal life as well as in our work and our leadership”, Heidi says. While assumptions can help us to fill in gaps of information and to construct our reality, it’s important to distinguish our assumptions from facts when making important decisions in leadership positions. The incorporation of reflective practices, individually and as a team, is a powerful way to do this, ultimately improving the quality of decisions.

Reflective leaders

While reflection is beneficial for everybody, it can be especially useful for leaders. According to Heidi, “Exploring one’s own thoughts and actions is a fascinating thing and very useful for leadership development”. She explains that reflective processes can be used to create our own, unique thinking about things that matter to us or to our organisations. “While it’s great to gather information from the outside world, it’s our own unique thinking that truly sets us apart as leaders and humans. By developing a greater capacity to integrate our thinking, our inner consciousness, and our existence, we can translate it into wiser actions”, Heidi explains. 

“It’s our own unique thinking that really sets us apart as leaders and humans”

Often when we think about leadership, we think about leading people. And while leaders hold many other responsibilities as well, it’s the interactions with people that have the potential for the greatest impact. “If we just act a little bit more consciously, we can bring more of the results we want to achieve and avoid upsetting or confusing people”, Heidi says. She also notes that the aim of doing everything as quickly as possible can actually make us ineffective, because we might have to go back and clean up after ourselves. “Instead of taking a few seconds to think about how to deliver my feedback, I might end up having three conversations because I said something hastily”, Heidi explains. The same goes for strategic decisions in business: “If we just go with the first instinct without having any room for reflection, we might miss a lot of important information and end up making poor decisions”.

In our work in Amara we use reflective practices with individual leaders and management teams to help them become more aware of their own thinking and the resulting action. A very concrete result of this better quality of thinking and awareness is the leaders’ ability to bring broader, richer information into the decision-making process. “To make quality business-critical decisions, we should go deeper than the surface, and be really honest with ourselves”, Heidi emphasises. So, how can we actually “dive deeper”, as Heidi is inviting us to do? Luckily, there are several practices and exercises that can support your reflective process. Reflective writing and the use of images are some of our favorites.

No filter, brutal honesty

“Reflective writing is a fabulous, practice that we have used successfully for years”, Heidi says. She explains that writing forces us to make decisions and helps us notice our own thinking. “If we just think, without a supportive structure, it’s tempting to skip the thoughts that we don’t like or that feel awkward and jump to the next thought”, Heidi says. With reflective writing you can dive deep in a specific topic, for example a development area or a difficult decision ahead. Different prompts are a good way to start, for example first writing “Right now I feel…” and continuing from there. 

Compared to traditional writing, reflective writing is an intuitive and continuous process, rather than an effort to create a planned and polished end result. “It’s not strict in terms of grammar or whether someone is actually able to read the text. It’s more like talking on paper, getting the thoughts out of our head”, Heidi explains. There is no need for logic or for filtering because the process is meant to support one’s own development, not to deliver a message to anyone else. “The idea is to be really honest with yourself, writing anything that comes up to your mind. And that’s what we rarely do”, she says. Let your hand, not your mind lead the way! It can be eye-opening to go back to something that you have written six months ago. “The process really makes it visible how we are able to change our own thinking”, Heidi says. 

“The idea is to be brutally honest with yourself”

Feeling unsure of what to write or even experiencing a “writer’s block” is normal when getting started with reflective writing, but all of that is part of the process. “It might feel difficult to let go of the filter, as things might arise deep from your consciousness that you don’t want to hear. That’s how much honesty there should be”, Heidi emphasises. Here are few tips on how to get started with your own practice or even introduce reflective writing to your team:

  • Use pen and paper whenever possible “I feel that this way we are closer to what we are writing. The action of writing moves our body connecting it to our mind, our thoughts and our emotions. They are all the same”, says Heidi
  • Do not lift the pen from the paper. Just keep writing whatever comes to your mind, even if it makes no sense. Let go of the filter. If you’re thinking that you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write”. 
  • To get started, use a few words or a sentence. For example “Right now I feel…” and continue writing from there. If you get stuck, write the beginning again and continue from there. 
  • Start with baby steps and use a timer. You can, for example, write for two minutes twice a week. 

A picture is worth a 1000 words

The use of images can help you expand your thinking and explore alternative perspectives. After all, a picture is worth a 1000 words, as the saying goes. “Images take us to a different place. They can show us a perspective we didn’t think about and inspire thinking that is taking a leap towards something new”, Heidi says.  She emphasises that it’s not only about the image itself, but also about the way we relate to it that makes the use of images so powerful. “Some images have a powerful impact… you look at it and it just hits something in you. Images can work like a catalyst for jumping into something that might have deeper meanings for you”, Heidi explains. In Amara we use images often, because they open up doors, igniting broader thinking and conversation. Sometimes, those doors are something we were not even be consciously aware of! 

A simple but impactful exercise is using a large set of different images and selecting one that speaks to you right now. While this is less focused than using a prompt in writing, it can help surface some underlying themes and open up conversation and thinking. Another great practice selecting three cards: something that speaks to you about the past, something that speaks to you about the present and something that speaks to you about the future. A whole other dimension can be reached by placing half of the cards facing up and half of them facing down and choosing one from each side. “If, for example, you first choose a card that represents the transformation that is speaking to you, and then choose another card that that is hiding upside down and pair those two together, it can be quite remarkable to see what you notice in them”, Heidi says and continues: “I sometimes wonder what this magic is because it’s amazing how, oftentimes, the two cards are really connected and the things that come up from the blind card are directly speaking to something people have on the edge of their consciousness.”

The use of images can also be a great way to bring up more creativity. “When we look at what are some of the most important skills needed for the future, it’s about innovation and creativity. I think that it’s one of the values that the images touch on our creativity and become a catalyst for taking us to a creative place, which is then beneficial for overall development” Heidi explains. 

Introducing reflective practices to your work

Making reflection part of your day will help you grow in your identified developmental areas, as simple exercises bring your attention back to the things that matter, help you be more engaged and active in your learning and reveal the transformation that is taking place every day. A simple mantra to use in any moment, is React, Reflect, Respond. There three words remind us that we all have reactions all the time, and that we can notice them, decide to learn from them and determine our responses. The trick is to notice what your reactions are – this is reflection – so you can respond in a more conscious way. 

React, Reflect, Respond

After you have learned to notice your reactions and to stop before responding, you can start focusing on how you make meaning of the situation at hand. What are your assumptions and the stories you tell yourself? What are they based on? You can also reflect on how you would like to behave in a certain situation and how you actually behave. What’s the gap in between?

In Amara we ensure that different perspectives are being held including three different viewpoints: me, we, and it. Let’s take a practical example of deciding what to do in a crisis, to illustrate what this might mean. The three questions used to guide the reflective process could be:

1) What serves my needs in this situation and going forward? (ME)

2) What serves our team’s needs in this situation and going forward?  (WE)

3) What serves our organisation’s needs in this situation and going forward? (IT)

Imagine each member of a management team selecting an image to respond to each of the questions above. What would the images reveal about the management team members’ personal needs, fears, and aspirations? What would the images bring up about the team dynamics and relationships? Broader perspectives are gained about the organisation’s needs in the midst of a difficult moment. Finally, how much better aligned would the management team be after this exercise, and how much more prepared to make conscious, effective decisions going forward? The perspectives of me, we, it, can easily be included in reflection about any situation. 

Taking reflection online

Many of the exercises mentioned here are conveniently set up in Amara Tools, to support coaches and leaders in facilitating reflection and the developmental process for their clients and team members in the online environment. We’ve used the tool in our own workshops recently and have been amazed by the impact the simple reflective exercises can have on individuals and teams in a very short time and with minimal effort. “My experience is that Amara Tools can be used both in individual sessions and with groups, and the exercises can have a powerful impact helping people to gain insights, something about themselves, or something about the situation they’re in”, Heidi says. 

“The exercises can have a powerful impact on helping people to gain insights, something about themselves, or something about the situation they’re in”

For the next coaching session, team meeting or workshop you’re facilitating, we invite you to try out Amara Tools. We have made it easy and intuitive to use, so bringing reflection to any situation can be effortless and fun. Even if you don’t quite know how to start, we’ve got your back. You can find simple ready-made exercises which take only a few minutes to complete, complete with tips and instructions for the facilitator. If you’re feeling creative, you can of course create your own exercises, combining images and writing, and making use of our beautifully curated digital card decks.

We trust that this blog has helped you learn more about reflective practices and that you now feel confident in starting your own reflective routine. If you are in a leadership position, you have an amazing opportunity to bring a lasting leadership practice to others as well! Here are some prompts you can use, in Amara Tools or elsewhere, to help you get started: 

  • Right now I feel…
  • Today I learned…
  • I want to develop in…
  • I want to do more of…
  • I want to do less of…
  • The topic we discussed makes me feel…
  • I notice…
  • I am drawn to…
  • I feel grateful for…