The Missing Ingredient

Leadership Development

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

– Confucius

What’s the most important aspect of a successful leadership development program?

Education? Training? Reading? Case Studies? Role Models? Experience? Experimentation? Exercises? Games? Challenges? Mentorship? Feedback?

These are all important components of leader development, but I’d like to highlight an aspect I feel is often overlooked and undervalued: Reflection. I think it’s left out because course designers either fail to understand its power or don’t know how to encourage it—or both.

1. First, its power. Reflection is the catalyst that jump starts self-directed, personalized (i.e. meaningful) leadership development. High-potential leaders could get a lot out of each component I mentioned above—but it’s not guaranteed they will. Adding reflection into the mix increases your chances of participants experiencing the “aha” moment you’re hoping for.

Helping high potentials reflect on what they’re going through can mean the difference between life-changing realizations and just “going through the motions”.

2. Sounds good, but how do you induce reflection? It’s not as easy as creating a reading list, teaching a class, or facilitating an exercise. You can’t force someone to reflect in a meaningful way. You can, however, set the conditions for meaningful reflection to occur. Here are a few ideas:

  • Journal. Encourage this by 1. giving them a journal, 2. setting aside time for them to journal, & 3. giving them a venue to share what they’re learning
  • Model. Ask authentic questions and expect the same from participants
  • Discuss. Build in group discussion time after leadership development events
  • Serve. Incorporate volunteer work into your program; it helps you contemplate purpose beyond personal profit
  • Present. Have participants brief the group (or their team) on what they’re learning
  • Share. Urge participants to blog or use twitter to share what they’re learning
  • Commit. Schedule time for reflection—then guard it with your life!

Whether you’re in charge of developing other leaders or just in charge of developing yourself, this truth still stands: Education and experience are important, but if you aren’t injecting your program with adequate doses of reflection it will never become self-sustaining, let alone create explosive results.

Is reflection really that important? How do you incorporate it into your development?

15 thoughts on “The Missing Ingredient”

  1. Geoff,

    Your post catches me at a reflective moment because yesterday I had a long conversation with a great leader. It caused me to reflect. Today, I continue to reflect.

    One benefit of reflection is it fuels intrinsic motivation. It helps us get in touch with who we are and who we want to be.

    Thanks for this useful post,


    1. Absolutely, Dan. I think there’s a push in today’s society to “be productive”, but if we don’t take time to reflect and recharge we lose sight of why we’re going what we’re doing and how best to proceed. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Good morning Geoffrey! Thank you for such an insightful post! I would like to take this a step further and encourage everyone, that is interested and motivated, to try reflection to find a place for this to happen. For myself, I find a long walk in a secluded, peaceful, awe inspiring forest feeds my thought process. Often, I will take my journal with me to write and reflect. Once again, thank you!

    1. Thanks Phil. I’m with you—give me a secluded forest, throw in some mountains, and reflection comes easy.

      I find that living in New York City forces me to be a bit more intentional, though. Sometimes just a few quiet moments by a window is enough—if I’m purposeful about it.

      I echo your challenge to everyone: Take a few minutes right now to stop and reflect on what’s going on.

  3. Reflection is so important but it doesn’t come easily to all. I think it’s something that can feel a little unnatural at first but one definitely improves with practice.

    I teach and I think it is important for students to be reflective in their learning. Several universities have written advice for students so I have some links for our school students on this page:

    I like good quotes – here’s a couple I think relevant here on writing things down:
    ‘Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning:  I wanted to know what I was going to say.’  ~Sharon O’Brien
    ‘Writing is thinking on paper’. William Zinsser

    1. Terrific resources, Colleen. Thanks for sharing! I do think it’s important to give students some structure (not too much) for their reflective time so it doesn’t deterioriate into just “hang out” time.

  4. There is no learning without reflection. The leaders and organization that don’t learn, won’t survive. Leaders need to be more purposeful in opening spaces for reflection, both for themselves and for their organizations. Just today I wrote in my blog (

    “Reflecting “alone” AND “together” can put you in that calm space amid the hurricane of theory, practice, technology, strategy, and outputs. It’s in that calm space where learning, creativity, development, and innovation happens. As a leader, you need to jealously guard spaces for reflecting alone AND together.”

    Thanks for spreading the message of the importance of reflection.

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