Understanding the Reflective Path to Leadership

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The topic of leadership has been a well-studied one and dates all the way back to the 19th century, when the Great Man Theory was first introduced and propagated by Thomas Carlyle in 1840. The term leadership refers to convincing others to put their personal motivations aside to achieve a shared team goal. Researchers who study leadership generally talk about leadership as either leadership emergence or leadership effectiveness. Leadership emergence represents the extent to which an individual is perceived by his or her subordinates or team mates as a suitable or good leader, while leadership effectiveness refers to the extent to which a leader is seen as having an impact on the group’s or organisation’s performance.

Past leadership studies suggest that factors such as dominant or extroverted personality traits, intelligence, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and proactive personality influence leadership effectiveness and leadership emergence. While all these factors do play a crucial part in influencing one’s leadership performance, we believe that reflection might shed some light on another more inward-oriented pathway to leadership.

Although there are several forms of reflection, practical reflection is the most common reflection method examined in current organizational research. This form of reflection involves experiencing a past incident, interpreting the meaning behind a social action, and then learning from the incident. Some scholars also distinguish between two forms of reflection – reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection-in-action refers to reflecting about the action while the action is being carried out. On the other hand, reflection-on-action is what we would commonly envision or expect reflection to be, the kind of thinking that occurs only after the action is completed.

You must be thinking ‘How might reflection relate to leadership performance?’ We believe that reflection can be perceived as a process that starts with a disturbance in the standard way of managing a particular task, and this process plays a very important part in creating opportunities for creative learning. For example, professionals can learn at work by carrying out the task itself, collaborating and speaking with co-workers, working with clients, and reflecting on and assessing their own positive and negative work experiences. Therefore, it would be reasonable to speculate that leaders can also improve their leadership performance by learning from their experiences through reflection.

That said, the impact that reflection can have on leadership performance may vary with a person’s goal orientation. Psychologists who study human motivation generally classify goals into two main categories – performance goals and learning goals. Performance goals refer to goals aimed at receiving positive evaluations or avoiding unfavourable evaluations of one’s competence, while learning goals refer to goals aimed to improve one’s competence, to learn or be good at something new. When reflecting, some individuals might focus more on performance goals, while others might focus more on learning goals. The literature on goal orientation suggests that learning goals, compared to performance goals, are associated with better job performance and other positive work-related outcomes. Following this logic, we propose that learning goals might also have a positive influence on one’s leadership effectiveness or leadership emergence.

On that note, the time orientation and modes of one’s reflection might also influence one’s leadership effectiveness or leadership emergence. For example, when one’s reflection is future-oriented, positive expectations about the future might result in more effort and successful performance, while fantasies might result in less effort and less successful performance. Individuals may also make comparisons with their past selves when reflecting. People can preserve their self-esteem by criticizing their older selves and commending more recent selves, serving as a coping mechanism when triggered by stressful events.

With the generous support of a research grant from The HEAD Foundation, our research team is currently conducting empirical research to understand the impact of reflection on leadership processes, as well as how factors such as individuals’ goal orientation or time orientation might influence the link between reflection and leadership. Our research project involves surveying senior executives around the world, and we are excited to see what we find. We look forward to sharing the results of our study with The HEAD Foundation community upon completion of our project.


Roslina Yong received her Bachelor’s in Social Science (Major in Psychology) from Singapore Management University.

Dr Madeline Ong is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior & Human Resources at Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business.

Tags : By Dr. Madeline OngBy Roslina Yong