Are you a ReflActive Leader?

Are you a ReflActive Leader?

As I coach senior leaders, I’ve found that fostering their self-awareness is critical for personal and professional development, as well as leadership success. I was coaching a client of mine recently who is the Financial Director for a global health brand. Having been promoted internally, she is new to her role and we are working together to establish her brand, presence and voice within the Executive Team. We were discussing a recent ‘critical meeting’ with her global counterparts and after our session she commented how much she had gained from debriefing what had happened with me – new perspectives, new ideas and new strategies for how to improve next time.


Is self-reflection the missing piece of your success puzzle?

Reflection is a critical part of learning from experience. It’s recognised in studies and literature as a key behaviour for leaders who want to develop themselves and move up the leadership ranks.

Often, when we think back over our experiences we fall into the trap of rumination and stew over a problem or experience. This is unhelpful and has been shown to deplete mental and emotional energy. In contrast, reflection involves evaluating decisions, mistakes, and successes in a constructive way that enables learning. It’s about taking a step back and getting ‘up on the balcony’ to systematically review past events through an impersonal and strategic lens with the goal of learning and improvement.

[If you missed my other mindset blogs or need a refresher, click below to read them:

Benefit mindset

Fixed and growth mindset

Agile mindset

Stress mindset]

4 Benefits of Reflection

Reflective learning provides leaders with several benefits including:

  • Learning faster and getting up to speed in new situations more quickly
  • Not making the same mistake twice
  • Being ready to deal with unfamiliar circumstances by recognising connections between seemingly unrelated situations
  • Questioning our assumptions and making better decisions.

Moving from Reflection to ReflAction

Reflection is often done retrospectively – as with my coaching client – however scholar and researcher, Donald Schon sees reflection as more closely related to real-time action and personal experience. This is the essence of reflActive leader mindset that I talk about in my model of Leveraged Leadership.

The reflActive leader engages in thinking along with action. Schon classifies reflection into two types, reflection on action is the reflection done after experiencing the action, whereas reflection in action is conscious thinking and modification while on the job – the reflActive leader reflects on the action whilst experiencing it.

Some people refer to this as meta-thinking, meta-cognition or meta-consciousness and often the experience of observing yourself is called mindfulness. And this makes sense – mindfulness is often described as ‘the act of being present and observing without judgment’ and this helps us get up on the balcony whilst in the moment and gives us more material to draw insights from when reflecting afterwards.

Neuroscientist David Rock, and author of the book Your Brain at Work, uses the metaphor of ‘The Director’ to explain what happens in our brains when we step outside and observe our moment-to-moment experience. He suggests that with practice, we can make decisions about how our brain responds to situations and – like a Director – sometimes even alter the script.

The unexamined life is not worth living.



The Neuroscience of a ReflActive mindset

Our brains process the world through two separate networks. The narrative network takes in information from the outside world and processes it through a filter of what everything means with our own added interpretations. It is essentially a ‘sense-making’ device and is the default network that is active for most of our waking moments – it doesn’t take much effort to operate.

Research from 2007 by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, demonstrated that there is another way that we experience experience – the direct experience network. When this network is activated, you experience information coming into your senses in real time – you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people or yourself. In fact, you’re not really considering much at all. In psychology this state of complete immersion in the moment is called flow.  So as you’re sitting in a cafe, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze on your face and the hot drink in your hand.

Other studies have found that these two circuits, narrative and direct experience are inversely correlated, i.e. when the narrative circuit is active, you don’t see, hear, feel or sense as much as you are lost in thought. And, fortunately, when you focus attention on real-time incoming data such as your physical senses, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.  This is why mindfulness practice often asks that you focus on your breath.

Our narrative circuit is great for future oriented activities like planning, goal setting and strategising. But it does not help with refection in action – this is when we need to call on our Director to activate the direct experience circuit to fully experience the world in real-time. To enable more sensory information to be perceived and get closer to the reality of any event.

In doing so, we become more flexible in how we respond to the world and our habits, expectations or assumptions are more able to respond to events as they unfold. We also notice more about what’s going on inside – are we getting too tired to function? Is your brain getting too full? Do you need an energy-break? Do you need to switch off to give your mental energy a boost and allow an insight to get through? These types of observations become easier when we can activate our Director at will.


Developing a ReflActive mindset

Developing a ReflActive mindset means engaging your Director more often and can be hard to do when there’s a lot going on or when you feel under pressure. To make is easier, it needs to be primed in our brains because it was a recent experience, and this means finding simple ways to bring it into your life everyday.

A model I’ve used with leaders based on Kolb’s reflective learning cycle and developed by my friends Michelle McQuaid and Beck Melville uses the framework Act, Assess, Adjust to create a learning loop that can be used both in action and retrospectively on action to build new patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving to develop leader capacity, capability, impact and outcomes.


Act – experiment with new ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving that align with our goals.

Assess – review the feedback from your actions (your own and others) and determine what is and isn’t working.

Adjust – look for ways to incorporate what you’ve learned into future actions and sustain your motivation to try again.

In order to activate our Director and build its capacities we need to repeat this learning loop over and over to wire our neural pathways towards mastery.  

The ultimate leadership lesson

Ultimately, the outcome of reflection and ReflAction is learning. It widens our perspective on a problem by broadening our knowledge. It helps us develop strategies for dealing with it, develops skills and helps us acquire new insights into our behaviour, as well as changes attitudes. As leaders, we can do this for ourselves and encourage it with others by asking questions of them that encourage reflection.

In doing so we can grow collective leadership capacity, capability, impact and outcomes – and that’s how we make positive change in the world.

If you’d like me to help you or your team increase your Director capacities, contact me at or click here.

Are you in New Zealand this November?

If so, don’t miss this Mindful Leadership workshop by Maya Nova…

Learn and practice the foundations of Mindful Self-leadership to improve awareness, build resilience and improve your mindset and empathy.

During this 1/2 day workshop, Maya will share her model of Mindful Leadership and introduce some key ideas and tools to help you get back in touch with your leadership potential and gain a better understanding of how to live and lead above the line.

Mindful Leaders are calm and empathic leaders who know how to manage themselves in times of stress. They are resilient, open and know how to get better engagement and more productivity out of their people. They are in touch with a sense of meaning and enjoyment in their role.

Book your spot today!

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.