top of page

Step Back and Become a Reflective Leader: Part 2 – Surprising Questions

Clive Martlew

In my previous blog I outlined how the Reflective Practice for Leaders Programme created a virtual community to support leaders in reflecting on their experience, and gaining actionable insights into themselves and their complex and uncertain contexts. At the heart of the reflective challenge is our understanding that while reflection is crucial for effective learning especially for leaders it’s also hard to find the time to do and hard to do it at a level that has real impact. The Community provided a safe space over 10 weeks to work with others on this dilemma.

Reflective Questions

Early in the Community programme we worked together on the importance of questions. Questions are at the heart of reflective practice. Questions are the catalyst for structured and purposeful journaling. They’re central to coaching. They provide the fuel for peer group consultation and action learning. The classic question structure for reflection on experience goes like this:

  • What? (What happened? – including the various versions of this from different perspectives)

  • So what? (Why? What does it mean? How do I feel? What have I learned?)

  • Now what? (What options for action do I have? What will I decide to do?)

This can be endlessly elaborated of course and in our Reflective Community we shared many examples of how this can be done. In The Art of Powerful Questions

Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs quote a great example of the use of a question with the power to stimulate different thinking. “Once a friend told me about a time she was being interviewed. The interviewer said, “We’re just going to ask you one question: What’s the question we should be asking?”

Powerful Questions

Vogt, Brown and Issacs set out eight criteria for powerful questions. A powerful question:

  • stimulates reflective thinking

  • challenges assumptions

  • is thought-provoking

  • generates energy to explore

  • channels inquiry and promises insight

  • is broad and enduring

  • touches a deeper meaning

  • evokes more questions

Questions tend to motivate more reflective thinking. Yes/no, closed questions tend to lack power. Questions focused on what, how and why are more powerful and provoke deeper reflection.

Surprising questions

However our biggest collective insight about questions was the importance of surprise in triggering and deepening reflection. That’s not just about how a surprising event brings us up short, causes us to pause and ask ourselves what’s going on. It’s also about how ‘surprising questions' take us to a deeper level of reflection. As we shared our experience of this we discovered how we all found different things surprising.

For me the question. "What are you up to?" is always surprising and challenging no matter how often I ask it of myself. And I almost always find it very powerful when I ask it of others!. It’s question for leaders posed by Steve Radcliffe in his book Leadership Plain and Simple. It’s a question that begins with the idea that leaders need to understand what it is they really care about and that they're probably working at the edge of their formal authority (or even exceeding it). So leadership is about being 'up to something'. Something that you really care about and that’s probably risky – being a bit beyond what’s expected of you.

Asking the apparently simple question “what am I up to?” is pretty challenging because it may reveal an uncomfortable answer! It may be a reminder of something really important to you. It can also be amazingly affirming in reminding you that you have been up to something important that matters to you. By just asking the question we notice how we're moving and that we've come quite far. The lesson? Noticing how you’re moving forward creates feelings of satisfaction that help reinforce the reflective habit.

Other members of the Community had different surprise questions. A question like "What is this situation trying to teach me?" has the potential to take us far beyond "what have I learned?". There are multiple possible answers. So it can change our point of view entirely. "What is your vision for this time and what is your role? challenges us to make explicit some basic assumptions and consider things that we've taken for granted. "How did you feel before you thought that?" also helps us notice changes we may have missed and directs attention to feelings that often go unremarked.

Your Questions

What would those questions do for you? Are they surprising? Would they be useful starting points for reflection? Do you have a question that always takes you by surprise? Is there a question someone else asked you that took you by surprise?

What next?

To find out more about participating in a Taylor Clarke Reflective Community for Leaders please contact:


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.


bottom of page