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A conversation on reflective practice for leaders

“Something that doesn’t reflect is dull and opaque”

By Clive Martlew, Senior Associate Consultant, Taylor Clarke

Investing time to reflect on experience is one of the most effective ways of developing yourself as a leader. The deliberate process of recalling events, looking at them from different perspectives, deepening insight into what happened and its meaning is increasingly seen as vital skill for effective leaders. I recently had a chat with Professor Paul Gray who until 2019 was Chief Executive of NHS Scotland and Director General for Health and Social Care in the Scottish Government. He’s now a leadership coach, Non-Executive Director and Professor at Glasgow University. He spoke candidly about his experience of reflecting on his practice as a leader.

CM: Hi Paul, thanks for agreeing to spend some time talking about how you used reflection in your approach to leadership. Maybe you could begin by describing how you reflect on your work and experience? What works for you?

PG: Reflecting in conversation worked best for me. Sitting pensively on my own didn’t deliver value. I needed the conversation and the challenge and the opportunity to externalise what I was thinking about in order to make sense of it. I know people who prefer reflecting on their own…but I find personally it works best when I’ve got someone else to share with who can challenge what I’m saying and stop me from tram-lining and cutting off particular aspects and declining to bring them into my thinking.

CM: So when you’re at your reflective best what’s actually happening?

PG: I’m using the opportunity to see different perspectives…particularly in a very busy job. The immediate and the urgent can overtake the important and sometimes reflecting allows you to think about whether the most pressing thing you have to deal with is the most important to deal with and whether you could change the amount of time you spend on them. It’s possible in many circumstances to choose how you feel about them or how you respond to them.

CM: What would you say have been the benefits of reflecting and being challenged about the way you think?

PG: It helps me spot self-imposed limitations. There are things I hear people saying that I’ve in the past reflected on where I’ve moved my own thinking from feeling boxed in and constrained to realising I had more options than I thought I had. Also other people can challenge my assumptions – assumptions I’m sometimes not even aware of. I don’t think I even realised I was making an assumption…I wasn’t stopping or checking it.

CM: What gets in the way for you of reflecting more effectively?

PG: Obviously one thing is time. But this conversation has reminded me of the value I got from being coached. Its made me ask myself where will I get that reflective space now [in my new role] – who’s coaching me. Maybe another barrier is not using a wider repertoire of reflection tools...things that didn’t work for me in the past. It’s made me think again about some of those other things like thinking on my own and whether they have more value than I thought. Should I go back over them and ask myself if they can be of value in the current context? That’s something about not dismissing something because you tried it once and it didn’t work for you.

CM: So I often think there are three challenges in getting better at reflection and using it more effectively to learn. Challenge number one is just to allow time to engage in reflection. Many of us get stuck at that point. Challenge number two is to deepen the reflection by becoming a bit uncomfortable and being presented with new and unexpected questions, either from within oneself or from someone else. This can reveal our assumptions and biases, and that will probably make us feel a bit defensive and uncomfortable. The third challenge is turning insights into action and actually doing something different. Does that provoke any thoughts for you?

PG: Yes, it’s the follow through and action that I get from an action learning set and coaching. Being part of an action learning set and working with a coach gave me experience of being held to account for following through with action. I remember a couple of instances in an action learning set in particular when reflecting with someone on why an action wasn’t taken forward was more powerful than the original discussion about what the action should or should not be. As a group we got more engaged and did it without ganging up on anyone – it was a much more supportive environment than that.

CM: Yes, not following through sometimes tells you more about yourself and the system you are part of.

What could you do to improve the way you reflect to learn from experience? What’s next for you?

PG: I’m not yet good enough at recognising feedback for what it is regardless of the source of it. Because I know there’s a bit of me that says, well, what right has x to tell me what I should be doing? Well x has a perspective and should at least listen to it and be willing to reflect on it. So there’s something for me about refreshing that commitment not to be defensive.

CM: That’s interesting. So a different angle might be, rather than getting feedback and ideas about what to do differently, to seek good questions from others that challenge you to find the new insights and answers in yourself.

So, in concluding, if you were generalising and maybe talking to other leaders in Scotland about the benefits of reflective practice what would you say?

PG: I’d say firstly that I simply could not have done my job without access to some sort of reflection and I would also add that my mental health would have suffered considerably without it.

Something that doesn’t reflect is dull and opaque. So it would be good for leadership not to be dull or opaque!

This is not just about being stronger, bigger, faster, better and more wonderful! Its about the humanity of leadership.

CM: Thanks Paul. What an inspiring note on which to finish.

What next? Let’s Talk…Reflective Practice

The event is a space to discuss what works and share experience with colleagues. We’ll be exploring:

  • The principles, benefits and practice of reflection for leaders

  • How we reflect, what works and what doesn’t.

  • Different approaches to reflection

  • How to deepen our reflection

  • Overcoming barriers to reflection

If you are interested in attending our next reflective practice for leaders please contact

Reading. In previous blogs I’ve discussed why reflection is so effective for leaders, some of the main approaches to reflection and how to use them to develop leadership capabilities. Read Clive’s blog series on Reflective Practice for Leaders here

On Twitter use #reflecttolearn


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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