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No regrets? Learning from Experience for Leaders in the Crisis

By Clive Martlew, Senior Associate, Taylor Clarke

I recently wrote a blog and ran a ‘Let’s Talk…’ on Reflective Practice for Leaders. It was an interesting and engaging exercise grounded in some worries I had about how leadership development might respond to the needs of leaders in a time of radical uncertainty. My hypothesis was that the crisis is an (intense) opportunity for leaders to learn and grow. New experiences are potentially one of the most powerful sources of personal growth but we’re all so distracted and anxious that learning will be really difficult. The risk is that this becomes a wasted opportunity and we look back regretting our failure to ‘learn the lessons’ of the crisis – personally and collectively.

In this blog I want to think out loud a bit more about reflective practice for leaders, look at how we might overcome some of the things that get in the way of learning from experience and why facilitated, reflective conversations with peers can be among the most useful and developmental things to do just now.

The Reflective Process

It’s through reflection that experience and learning are integrated and personalized and insights transformed into action. Experience alone doesn’t necessarily lead to learning; deliberate and purposive reflection on experience is essential.

It starts with narrating an experience, looking back and telling the story as honestly as we can about what happened – or perhaps in the middle of the action trying to describe to ourselves what’s happening. Next is sensemaking: asking “so what?” Leadership is complex and messy, and deals with wicked issues. We’re on the noisy and apparently chaotic dancefloor as Ron Heifetz observes – where its difficult to see what’s going on and what the patterns are. Stepping back from the action and ‘going to the balcony’ allows us to see patterns and opportunities – in ourselves and in the situation. As Ginnie Bolton says: ‘To gain perspective we need to gain distance’.

However the key step comes next. This involves challenging ourselves and the things we take for granted – to see things from a variety of viewpoints and make the familiar strange. The metaphor often used is that we peel the onion to reveal underlying causes, values and assumptions. We also reflect on feelings. We ask ‘why?’. By continuously questioning our understanding of the situation and our feelings about it we create the possibility of reframing the problem and creating new opportunities for action.

A reflective stance is one where we take responsibility for our own learning. We don’t expect others to give us the answer or off the shelf advice to fix things. And we don’t claim to have the answer to someone else’s problems. We take responsibility for implementing our own solutions and for managing our own boundaries and risks.

The Barriers to Sustaining Reflective Practice

Reflection takes many forms. Traditionally the focus has been on individual written reflection through journaling and more recently by blogging. But solitary reflection can be difficult for some people. It can be a bit boring and finding the time seems to be a problem. Slowing down just feels wrong sometimes – especially in a crisis – and difficult when we’re under pressure from ourselves and others to ‘do something’! Reflective thinking is hard work and tiring. Lots of us have good intentions; but of course that’s about priorities and protecting time from more urgent (but arguably less important) busyness.

Even more difficult in my experience is challenging oneself or opening up to challenge from others. Its hard to move from descriptive narrative to critical reflection. We tend to be highly skilled at protecting ourselves from real challenge. Chris Argyris describes vividly the processes of defensive reasoning that lead to skilled incompetence where highly skilled and clever people produce outcomes the opposite of what they say they intend. The reflective task is to make visible the premises, inferences and assumptions that shape our behaviour and scrutinise them from multiple perspectives. We can be very skilful at by-passing this work and masking our fear of failure or embarrassment and feelings of vulnerability or incompetence.

So, we need to create some accountability for prioritizing time for reflection, ensuring we can’t dodge challenge to our taken for granted ways of doing things and for following through by turning our insights into action. Reflecting with a trusted partner (such as a coach or mentor) or in a facilitated group has the potential to overcome these barriers.

Using Peer Consultation for Support and Challenge

In my previous blog I described an approach I’ve used successfully over many years to protect time for reflection, create challenge in a supportive context and provide some accountability for follow through - the facilitated peer learning or peer consultation process. Working on live leadership challenges this structured but flexible approach not only creates a safe context for learning from one’s own experience but also a way of learning from the experiences of others. It creates a place for listening to understand others and support them in owning their challenges – acknowledging that there are rarely easy ‘solutions’ to wicked problems. It provides a safe environment in which participants can reflect and gain insights on themselves and on the system of which they are part – looking in and looking out – and plan and evaluate new approaches. It gains its impact from group participation and diverse perspectives.

Although usually conducted face to face Peer Consultations also work well in virtual environments – the carefully paced and structured approach we use lends itself really well to video or audio participation. The challenge now is to convene these conversations and build the trusting connections that underpin their success. Read Clive’s blog series on Reflective Practice for Leaders here


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).


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