Following your Path

Thinking it through: The path to reflective leadership

Reflective leadership is a way of approaching the work of being a leader by leading one’s life with presence and personal mastery. Learning to be present, to be aware and attentive to our experience with people throughout the day is the focus of reflective leadership. It approaches the study and practice of leadership from the perspective of human experience. Based upon the science of phenomenology, reflective leadership begins with self-awareness and reflection on one’s own experience and the experience of others, and results in improved communication that enlivens and changes nursing practice.

Why cultivate reflective thinking?

Reflective thinking is both an internal and external process that promotes self-understanding and improved critical thinking skills. It is essentially a form of inner work that results in the energy for engaging in outer work. It is also a meaningful and necessary activity for knowing what is important to oneself and in one’s practice or organization. Therefore, it is important to be aware of one’s thinking in order to understand oneself, and to make informed and logical decisions when working with others. In turn, attending to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others facilitates progress toward achieving professional and organizational goals. Therefore, this article will begin with a focus on becoming a reflective thinker as a means to becoming a reflective leader. By thinking about one’s experience, we develop a fuller understanding about what is known and increase our potential for leadership capacity (Horton-Deutsch & Sherwood, 2008; Sherwood & Horton-Deutsch, 2012).

As an initial step to becoming a more reflective thinker, and ultimately a reflective leader, I encourage you to thoughtfully consider the following questions and responses: What steps do I take to become a reflective thinker? What tools, resources, and models can help me to become more self-aware and reflective? What does reflective leadership mean to me? How do reflective leaders positively impact nursing practice and develop future reflective leaders? What reflective leadership processes augment leaders’ strengths and build success in others?

What steps do I take to become a reflective thinker?

Taggart and Wilson (2005) developed a reflective thinking model that illustrates the reflective thinking process. One of the first steps to reflective thinking involves identifying a problem, challenge, or dilemma. Next, step back from the problem and look at the situation from a third person perspective in order to frame or reframe the problem. Ask yourself: How might an outsider view this situation? This second step involves observation, data gathering, reflection, and consideration of moral principles. These aspects help to provide a mental picture of your thinking in an attempt to define the context of the situation. The situation may be likened to past events in an attempt to make sense of the problem and to search for possible solutions within your repertoire. Ask yourself: What has worked for me in similar situations I have encountered in the past, and how is this situation different? Once you have searched for routine approaches or identified possible approaches based on reasoning through similar past experiences, predictions are made and a number of possible approaches created. The approaches are then systematically tested with subsequent observation and further testing. The final stage involves reviewing the actions taken and the consequences. Ask yourself and others involved: Do I (you) feel this situation has been successfully resolved? If the approach was successful, the instance is stored for future retrieval in similar situations. If the approach was not successful, the problem may be reframed and the process repeated.

What tools, resources, and strategies can help me to become more self-aware and reflective?

Communication occurs within the context of awareness. To effectively communicate what you are thinking, you must be aware of what you are thinking. The Awareness Wheel as described by Miller, Sherod, and Phyllis provides a tool for tuning into yourself and becoming more self-aware. For example, in my own experience of working toward being a more reflective person, I have learned to see conflict as an opportunity to discover something new/more about myself and the other person. I use the Awareness Wheel to help reflect and process the situation.

Ask yourself: What am I sensing? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What am I willing to do? What am I unwilling to do? It is important to take the time necessary to ask yourself these questions. Sometimes it takes days to get to genuine answers. You may have to keep asking the questions until you can move past strong emotions such as anger or resentment. Emotions are valuable tools that guide us to what we are thinking. Once you have reflected on and are able to honestly and fully answer these questions, share your concerns and responses to the above questions with the other person(s) in a direct and nonthreatening way. Use of the language in the questions above encourages balanced ownership and enhances connection. The Awareness Wheel provides a tool for monitoring your own self-awareness, expanding your thoughts, and listening attentively to others for resolving problem situations.


Another prerequisite to working effectively with others is to know your own unique gifts and talents. This involves personal exploration. Strengths Finder is an assessment that helps you to identify your talents and provides hundreds of strategies for building them into strengths. The book can be read in one sitting and the test can be taken online in 30 minutes. The approach emphasizes how to apply, practice, and refine your strengths as well as those around you. This personalized development guide helps you to align your job and goals with your natural talents.

Another resource is a paper from the Sigma Theta Tau International Scholarship of Reflective Practice Task Force. It includes recommendations and guidelines related to reflective practice that are useful to individual clinicians, nursing leaders, healthcare organizations, institutions, educators, and health care consumers. It includes a comprehensive bibliography of resources on the scholarship of reflective practice. This resource paper describes definitions of reflection and reflective practice and their historical context, methods, processes, applications, benefits, and limitations. Recommendations are made to promote reflective practices in nursing worldwide.

What does reflective leadership mean to me?

Reflective leadership involves a commitment to the ongoing process of continual and sustained critical self-awareness and development, as well as facilitating this complex process in others. So, how do you do this? As a reflective leader, share your reflective thoughts with others and invite them to consider things as well. Enter into relationships with others without presenting a front or pretense, but instead being self-aware. I use the feelings that are available to me, allow myself to experience these feelings, and communicate them when appropriate. This type of real and genuine approach supports an even playing field and conveys that I value other persons and their contributions. I think of it as a way to encourage others through my own supported reflective practice.

Reflective leadership involves listening in order to learn from others. This listening necessitates an openness to others that is vital to human understanding and response. Listening fully and reflectively is not obtained without effort; it is a skill and art that must be practiced, discussed, and refined. Reflective leaders listen to stories from nurses and patients, and they discuss and reflect on how these stories can enhance and transform nursing practice and health care. A story invites us to search for significance. Stories provide information about what works and what does not work. Discussing and reflecting on stories enhances, transforms, and enables us to incorporate changes into our practice.

How do reflective leaders positively impact nursing practice and develop future reflective leaders?

Over the years, I have found this process allows me to not only share my concerns, but often brings underlying and hidden issues to the surface for both me and others involved. It provides an opportunity for me and the other person(s) to genuinely reflect on each other’s perspective, which creates a kind of catharsis. Then, each of us develops a broader perspective, a greater sense of understanding, and a renewed appreciation for each other.

Reflective practice is a transformative process. Once this healing has occurred, you and the other person are able to move forward in a more unified manner. You are then able to set mutually agreed-upon goals and guidelines that help to prevent future conflict. Activities such as informal times to connect (checking in) with one another and regular meetings that encourage reflective practice processes and open channels of communication support reflective leadership. Reflective leaders value these meetings and view them as a way to become more effective in professional collaborative work. It supports the development of a strong sense of collegiality within working relationships.

As a reflective leader it is important to be open and permit testing of assumptions and learning about one’s effectiveness. To ensure the effectiveness of your approach you will need to confront problems such as your own defensiveness, the defensiveness of others, and the ineffectiveness of your working group. Though addressing defensiveness with others risks weakening the relationships of members of the group, not testing assumptions risks the working group closing off.

Reflective leaders create a community in which reflection is an acceptable form of learning and support. That is, when issues arise you create a safe environment for personal expression in a thoughtful manner. Reflective leaders set goals, provide feedback, encourage and inspire, and promote self-monitoring. They draw upon individual strengths, offer others a variety of approaches to accomplish their work, and continually clarify or extend ideas and put problems into perspective. Aspiring to this vision is essential to helping to define and redefine goals.

What reflective leadership processes augment leaders’ strengths and build success in others?

Reflective leaders seek out other reflective leaders for peer reflection. This helps challenge assumptions, which may not be consistent with theory. Peers help us to clarify our values so that they match our behavior. This enables us to build each other’s strengths, compensate for each other’s weaknesses, and explore more creative problem-solving approaches.

Effective leaders achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop individuals along the way. These aspirations are best achieved when leaders are able to function in a collaborative and collegial way through practices of reflectivity that begin the process of perspective transformation. Reflective leadership is transformative in that it is about being successful and building success in others by reducing obstacles to leadership. Any obstacles are identified through reflection. Obstacles are intrinsic to our usual human ego-strivings to accomplish, to succeed, to control our surroundings and/or situation, and to compensate for our insecurities. We reduce the obstacles to leadership by consciously responding to whatever challenges us as a leader.

Reflective leaders foster a preferred way of being. They respond to daily leadership challenges by having an in-depth and comprehensive awareness of what kind of leader they want to be, what kind of human being they want to be, and what kind of legacy they want to leave. These questions direct a leader in the way he or she takes up daily leadership. How a leader goes about their day will determine, at the end of the day, if the leader feels successful and rests with integrity and peace of mind.

One of the greatest challenges for leaders of our era is the rapid rate of change. Another is the need for a new framework for the provision of health care services. These challenges require a leader who can bring everyone to the table to shape the future through collective dialogue and concerted action. Reflective leaders model an adaptive capacity, manage conflict, and know how to establish and maintain relationships. Reflective leaders are the co-creators of change. They recognize that no one person or situation can take away their personal peace or sense of competence. They transmit these feelings to others in a way that encourages and enables them to embrace the future and share in the creation of it. Finally, reflective leaders act as a model for others in their own search for meaning and value what they do. Through a commitment to ongoing reflective practice they exhibit self-awareness and personal growth.

On the path to becoming a reflective leader

Becoming a reflective leader begins by being reflective in your own practice. Start by being more fully present in each activity during your day. While interacting with others, attend to both verbal and nonverbal communication. Be sure to ask questions and clarify concerns. Be an active listener. Consider your own experience, the other person’s experience, and assumptions of each before drawing conclusions. Check in with others to ensure they feel heard. These practices will build relationships and a sense of mutual respect. In time, you will find others are drawn to you and seek your thoughtful consideration regarding problems at work. Through this transformative process you will walk the path to becoming a reflective leader!

Sara Horton-Deutsch is an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Nursing in Indianapolis.

Selected references

Bilotta V, Bilotta G. A Conversation with the Co-Founders of the Institute of Reflective Leadership. March 2007. http://www.reflectiveleadership.com. Accessed December 17, 2012

Buckingham M, Clifton, D. Now, Discover Your Strengths. The Free Press: New York; 2001.

Freshwater D, Horton-Deutsch S, Sherwood G, Taylor B. (2005). Resource Paper on the Scholarship of Reflective Practice, Sigma Theta Tau International. Available through Sigma Theta Tau International website. http://www.nursingsociety.org/Pages/SearchResultsPrimary.aspx?k=reflective%20practice%20paper&cs=This%20Site&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nursingsociety.org

Horton-Deutsch S, Sherwood G. Reflection: An educational strategy to develop emotionally competent nurse leaders. J Nurs Manage. 2008;16(8):946-954.

McCormack B, Hopkins E. The development of clinical leadership through supported reflective practice. J Clin Nurs.1995;4(3):161-168.

Mezirow J. A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education. 1981;32(1):3-24.

Miller Sherod, Phyllis. http://www.primarygoals.org/models/awareness-wheel/Connecting with Self and Others. Accessed December 20, 2012.

Porter-O’Grady T, Malloch K. Quantum Leadership: A Resource for Health Care Innovation. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2007.

Rapp T. Now Discover Your Strengths: Strengths Finder 2.0. The Gallup Organization. New York: Gallup Press; 2007.

Shermis S. Reflective thought, critical thinking. http://www.learn2study.org/teachers/reflective.htm. Accessed December 20, 2012.

Sherwood, G. & Horton-Deutsch, S. Reflective Practice: Transforming education and improving outcomes. Indianapolis: Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing; 2012.

Swenson M, Sims S. Listening to learn. In Diekelman NL (eds), Teaching the Practitioners of Care: New Pedagogies for the Health Professions. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press; 2003.

Taggart GL, Wilson AP. Promoting Reflective Thinking in Teachers. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press; 2005.

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