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Reflective Practice for Leaders in a Crisis

By Clive Martlew, Senior Consultant

I’ve been reflecting on how to best support my community of OD and leadership development professionals and worrying a bit about how those of us who work on leadership development can be helpful at the moment. We’re in a time of radical uncertainty. Our leadership skills, assumptions and values are all being challenged. Not just at work but in our personal and family lives. It’s a time of anxiety but also, potentially, a crucible for learning and growth. Applying the old models and prescriptions for ‘managing change’ and ‘coping with uncertainty’ somehow feel inadequate to the task. I know a lot of people who are feeling overwhelmed (and a bit irritated) by the amount of well intentioned advice being downloaded. We feel we don’t have the time or energy to learn even though we know that new experiences are one of the most powerful sources of personal growth.

So what would be helpful to leaders who feel overwhelmed and distracted by the crisis but also who want to do their best and continue to develop their leadership to meet unprecedented challenges? Honestly? I don’t know. But my hunch is that opportunities for reflective conversations with peers can be among the most useful things to do just now. There are no off the shelf answers and we’re all finding our way day-to-day in a rapidly changing context. Consequently it has been observed that many leaders in a crisis experience significant self doubt at key moments. So how can we make sense of what’s happening, gain reassurance about our (re)actions and build the confidence to take the initiative - to lead?

The Value of Reflective Practice

Reflective Practice is one of the foundations of professional development; it enables us to make sense of our experience and helps us transform insights into action and change. It’s through reflection that experience and learning are integrated and personalized. Experience alone doesn’t necessarily lead to learning; deliberate reflection on experience is essential. stepping back from the action or ‘going to the balcony to see the dancefloor’ allows us to see patterns and opportunities – in ourselves and in the situation.

Reflection can take many forms – drawing, writing a story, journaling, blogging, an After Action Review, coaching, mentoring…but one of the most useful approaches that I’ve used successfully over many years in two high performing organisations has been a facilitated peer learning or peer consultation process that gains impact from group participation and diverse perspectives – working on live leadership challenges.

The Benefits of Peer Consultation

I’ve been facilitating Peer Consultations for over 20 years and I’ve seen a range of positive outcomes for leaders:

  • increased self-awareness about their inner responses and their impact on others

  • more self confidence and the reassurance gained from sharing doubts, dilemmas, and lessons learned

  • enhanced ability to ‘read’ the context and make better decisions about action and risk

  • finding new opportunities for action by adopting different perspectives and reframing problems

  • creating low risk experiments to test new insights

  • a sense of community, giving and receiving mutual support and empathy – as well as challenge

What is a Peer Consultation?

A facilitated Peer Consultation generally takes place in a group of 4-8 peers meeting regularly for about an hour. Its experience led rather than theory led. It uses a structured but flexible process allowing one member to work intensively during that hour on a leadership issue that really matters to them. It offers other group members the opportunity to hear the reality of another’s experience and the ‘presenter’ gains access to a range of interpretations and insights from other participants from which they can draw learning.

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 to plan and evaluate new approaches.

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.

What next?

I’ll be hosting a free Let’s Talk session about how reflective practice helps you take care of your leadership. If you’d like to join meet other like-minded leaders then please get I touch at:


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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