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How Leaders Can Reboot Their Reflective Practice this year

By Clive Martlew

Many of us would like to reflect more and reflect more deeply for personal growth. But it's sometimes difficult just to find the time or energy to step back and to discover real insights through intentional reflection. Generally I’m not a fan of quick fixes (“five things”, “ten habits” and so on!) but for those wanting to start or reboot their reflective practice for the coming year here are my “top tips.”

Create a rhythm and schedule some time for reflection. Use prompts and reminders and accept that sometimes five minutes focused reflection can be really powerful. It doesn’t have to be long hours of hard graft! Start small; do something manageable. Reflection time should be a pleasure, so find somewhere enjoyable away from distractions.

Write! Writing by hand is proven to be the most effective way of reflecting. The cognitive process of handwritten notes provides richer information and deeper reflection. Don’t worry about style. Mix it up and practice. Bullet points, stories, blogging and drawings all work well. And write about your feelings too. If there are issues that are too difficult to write about, maybe because they’re too raw, just note them and move on.

Find questions. Questions are at the core of reflection. The classic approach is to reflect on an event by asking: What (happened)? So what (did it mean)? Now what (shall I do)? But also go question hunting and look out for surprising or “different” questions that help you see things from a new perspective or challenge your assumptions.

Take a question for a walk. Almost everyone I talk to about reflection says that they reflect best when out walking or exercising. The benefits of exercise for our mental and physical health generally are of course well known. But by being a little more intentional about reflecting while walking you can use some of that time to focus on your leadership challenges. The key is to prime yourself before walking by bringing an issue to mind, maybe reading about it for a couple of minutes. You’ll find that during your walk it will keep coming to mind and you’ll gain different perspectives about it. When you get back take a few minutes to write down your thoughts.

Find a reflection partner. The other thing people often say is that they reflect best with someone else. We don’t all have a coach or close mentor, but a sympathetic colleague or friend can be equally helpful as a source of challenge and support. They can be the source of surprising questions and can provide that little bit of accountability to actually DO something with the insights that arise from reflection.

The key when trying to improve your reflective practice is to try different things and find out what works for you. Find a mix of approaches – they’ll evolve over time anyway. Just aim for good enough. Don’t aim for an impossible ideal. Above all, do something!

Many thanks for your continued interest and support in our Taylor Clarke work on reflective practice for leaders and we look forward to working with you.


Clive Martlew has over 30 years experience as a leadership coach. He was previously Head of Learning and Leadership Development with the Scottish Government and at the UK Department for International Development (DFID). He is fascinated by the slippery question of how leaders learn.


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