01 FEBRUARY 2021
Why effective leaders should be reflective leaders
by Poonam Harry-Nana and Anita Bosch
Can reflective learning help you become a better leader?

With societies becoming more complex and workplaces more challenging, effective leadership has become an indispensable tool for business success. Today’s business leaders are required to challenge conventional thinking, embrace change and manage diversity, while ensuring that employees at all levels of the organisation are well-equipped – both in skills and attitude – to do the job.

Not surprisingly, leadership development programmes at universities and other higher education institutions have become increasingly popular, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate or executive education level. Broadly, leadership development focuses on the ‘self’ in a leadership role and the personal attributes that need to be developed for optimal performance, including self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-regulation. At the core of this process is reflection. Some people are naturally inclined towards reflection; others less so. Yet it is possible, by applying various learning techniques and interventions, to develop or enhance this capability and make it the centrepiece of one’s leadership style.

Business schools have a key role to play in developing reflective leaders, who are self-aware, accountable and ethical in their approach to managing resources and planning for the future. Curricula should therefore include reflective learning methodologies and applications. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students who embark on business programmes that include reflective learning opportunities invariably end up feeling more self-aware, self-confident and empowered. Through introspection, so the theory goes, these students probe their inner thoughts, beliefs and personal drivers, and in the process sharpen their worldview and enhance their emotional intelligence. This in turn enables them to better understand and navigate complex situations. Yet relatively little research has been conducted on the teaching or value of reflective learning in higher education business programmes, including its application to leadership development.

This article discusses a study that set out to explore how business school students/graduates in South Africa perceived the value of reflective learning interventions in leadership development programmes. Secondary aims of the study included determining which reflective learning interventions added value and how students/graduates felt they benefited from reflective learning. A literature review provided the theoretical foundation for the study, while primary research (using questionnaires and interviews) provided practical insights into the reflective learning phenomenon within the business school context.

The reflective learning continuum

Reflective learning is a multi-faceted concept which can be defined as ‘intellectual and affective activities that allow an individual to explore their experiences leading to new appreciations, understandings or evaluations’. Yet, to many people, engaging in critical reflection can be quite alien or even troubling if it disrupts their deeply entrenched beliefs about themselves. Moreover, reflective learning is a complex, emotional and intellectually demanding process that requires careful planning, skilful execution and time.

Reflective learning has different levels of intensity. Certain authors have made reference to a reflective learning continuum ? from habitual action (little or no reflection) to deep learning (intensive reflection). For example, little or no reflection involves minimal thought and engagement. Intensive reflection, on the other hand, involves serious soul-searching about currently held beliefs and perceptions, and even opens the door to the possibility of some of these beliefs and perceptions being altered.

In a fast-changing and uncertain business environment, which calls for strong and adaptable leadership, the ability to engage in deep reflection can make the difference between pedestrian and creative, forward-looking decision-making.

How was the study conducted?

For the primary research, which constituted a descriptive study, an online questionnaire was used (using a secure online data-collection platform), together with follow-up interviews. Non-probability ? specifically, convenience ? sampling was used to arrive at the participant group. For the sample, the researchers targeted MBA students/graduates who were busy with or had completed their degree, and had completed a leadership development module within the previous five-year period. A total of 37 people, drawn from four business schools, participated in the study. The questionnaire was initially piloted among a small group of MBA students to test its accuracy and effectiveness.

Participants were asked three main questions: whether reflective learning interventions (such as journaling, personal development plans, self-assessment, and peer assessments and feedback) had added value to their leadership development journey; which specific interventions had added the most value; and what level of reflective learning (on the reflective learning continuum) they had experienced. Follow-up telephonic interviews were conducted with participants to clarify potential anomalies in their answers and also to press them for more details on their reflective learning experiences. The two data-collection methods were used for the purpose of triangulation, which added to the rigour of the research process.

What did the study find?

There was an overwhelming affirmative response to the question relating to whether participants believed that reflective learning interventions had added value to their leadership development journey. Just over a third of the participants said that the reflective learning experience had been life-changing and transformative. The top-cited benefit by participants was the development of self-awareness and self-reflective competencies, followed by feelings of validation and contentedness. Other benefits mentioned by participants were a new-found appreciation of their role as leaders, recognition of areas needing improvement or with potential for growth, and the importance of explicit and implicit feedback in developing leadership mastery.

As far as specific interventions were concerned, the majority of participants found value in writing their life story/autobiography, with just under half citing self-assessment and/or peer assessment and feedback as being valuable. A smaller proportion saw value in writing a personal journal.

All participants reported that they had experienced a deeper level of reflective learning, with just under half having experienced intensive reflection ? at the high end of the reflective learning continuum. These individuals were likely to see the world (and themselves) quite differently, after having been immersed in a rigorous process of self-discovery.

Interestingly, two of the participants reported that their experience of reflective learning – while providing new insights – had been very challenging for them and had stirred negative emotions. They said that the reflective learning approach did not resonate with their personal learning styles and their natural inclination would be to avoid such an activity. Their reactions might have been the result of a particular type of upbringing or cultural orientation, or a reluctance to delve into their (perhaps painful) past.

Key insights on reflective practice

While the study had a positive (and in some cases profound) impact on most of the participants, it also provided important insights for higher education institutions, and business schools in particular, that are running leadership development programmes.

Those participants in the study who did not have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the reflective learning component of their leadership development programme indicated that their experience would have been enhanced if they had had been exposed to more real-life interventions – such as business simulations rather than academic, written or classroom-based interventions. While not necessarily being the ‘right’ or ‘better’ way of developing reflective skills, this suggests that different people have different learning styles, with some having a preference for experiential situations that mirror real life.

The researchers used the findings from the study to develop a framework that can be used to enhance the design of reflective learning interventions in leadership development programmes. Incorporating the concept of a reflective learning continuum, the framework recognises the importance of students’ readiness for reflective learning, their learning style preferences and their previous life experiences when designing optimal programmes. Appropriate interventions can then be determined. The framework lends itself to further development and testing, such as identifying the link between prior life experiences and the depth of reflection that people are willing to engage in, which would help to inform an appropriate range of leadership development interventions.

Notwithstanding the need for further research and for tailoring the reflective learning teaching approach for different groups of people, the preliminary results from this study show that if more leadership development programmes in South Africa adopted a systematic reflective learning approach, it would help to infuse the business sector with more high-calibre, astute leaders ? which is essential given the challenges that the country is facing.

Find the original article here: Harry-Nana, P. & Bosch, A. (2020). A framework to enhance the design of reflective leadership development learning interventions. South African Journal of Higher Education, 34(4), 60?76. https://www.journals.ac.za/index.php/sajhe/article/view/3536  

Prof Anita Bosch holds the Women at Work Research Chair at USB.


Source: The internationally accredited University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership. Visit our web-site at: https://www.usb.ac.za.

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