Pawn chess piece in front of mirror as king chess piece signifying growth.In Part 1 of “The Importance of Reflection for Leader Self-Development,” we established the need for leader self-development and what specific things someone can do to start on the path of leader self-development. Part 2 will dive deeper into reflection best practices, and what you should really be focusing on when reflecting. That is, how do you maximize your efforts in the reflection process? Whether you dedicate five, 10, or 30 minutes to reflection every day.

How is reflection defined in leader self-development literature?

Reflection is presented and defined in many ways in the research literature. Starting with a lexicon definition, moving to more technical definitions and finally those based more on processes of reflection.

Reflection is an “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey, 1933). Reflection differs from other mental processing techniques in that it is to analyze one’s past to operate more effectively in the future.

Reflection-on-action is the idea that after an experience an individual analyzes their reaction to the situation and explores the reasons around, and the consequences of, their actions.

Reflection-in-action is similar to reflection-on-action, but here, reflection is a process of immediate improvement in that the reflection process takes place while the behaviors are performed. With this, learning can be directly applied to the behavior as they are ongoing (Schon, 1978). 

Returning to experience. Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) define reflection similarly as Schon does, however they further address the emotions involved with reflecting on past experiences.

  • Returning to experience – is to be able to recall and detail the salient behaviors on an experience.
  • Attending to feelings – is about focusing on utilizing helpful (positive) feelings and removing the non-helpful (negative) feelings.
  • Evaluating experience – involves reexamining one’s experience and one’s intent, then to integrate new knowledge into one’s conceptual framework.

Boud, et al’s. definition forces individuals to place importance on the emotions of an experience, as most people sometimes better remember emotions rather than specific behaviors.

After-action-review is a structured review process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how individuals can do it better? The key here is that this process is done while a person is performing a task (Baird, Holland, & Deacon, 1999). After-action-review is very similar to Schon’s concept of reflection-in-action.

What does reflection look like in action? 

Now that we know what reflection is and the process of reflection, the following describes how one goes about reflecting. Essentially, what are the keys to successful reflection and when should one do it?

Four keys to successful reflection. Using Baird et al., (1999) after-action-review framework as a foundation, the researchers determined that there are four keys to successful reflection:

  • Focus on a few critical issues – the focus is on how to improve future performance. The best way to do this is to identify only one or two critical issues to work on at a time.
  • Reflect in close temporal proximity to the action – for reflection to be effective, an individual must reflect as soon as possible after the experience or behavior took place.
  • Follow a structured process – use a structured process such as journaling (writing or speaking into a tape recorder).
  • Lead back to action quickly – the key for any reflection process should be to better future performance, therefore, one must act on their learning as soon as possible.

Self-directed leadership-development framework. Nesbit (2012) using meta-analytic techniques draws on decades of research on self-development to identify the key components of closing the gap between the self-understanding and self-change. Self-understanding is knowledge of one one’s developmental needs and self-change is the deliberate act(s) of moving oneself to the desired state. Nesbit proposes the self-directed leadership-development (SDLD) framework in which self-regulation, managing emotions, and self-reflection lead to increased self-awareness, which in turn helps to close the gap between self-understanding and self-change. Following is Nesbit’s proposed model where one could apply Baird’s four keys to successful reflection:

Though the SDLD framework was proposed in the context of an organization, I would argue that it could be used in just about any context. If an individual determines that behavior changes need to be made, following the SDLD would be a wise stepping-stone to achieving those goals.

In the coaching that I do with GDI Talent Acquisition Practice, I use Baird et al.’s model to teach individuals effective reflection techniques. It ultimately comes down to reflecting as soon as possible, following a disciplined process, and focusing on one or two behaviors.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this topic, reflection is a key tool for leader self-development. And leader self-development is necessary for one’s growth as many organizations do not offer formal opportunities to develop. Furthermore, reflection leads to an increase in self-awareness, which is the foundation to strong levels of emotional intelligence. Finally, reflection is a key process of mindfulness, and helps us to be more present.

Though powerful, reflection is just one of any tools for leader development, what are some things that you do for your own personal development? Please share them in the comments.

Your Personal Action Plan:

  1. Take five minutes every day to reflect.
  2. Start a daily journal.



Baird, L., Holland, P., & Deacon, S. (1999). Learning from action: Imbedding more learning into the performance fast enough to make a difference. Organizational Dynamics, 27(4), 19-32.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: D. C. Heath. Classic and highly influential discussion of thinking.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The Costs and Benefits of Writing, Talking, and Thinking About Life’s Triumphs and Defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4), 692-708.

Nesbit, P. L. (2012). The Role of Self-Reflection, Emotional Management of Feedback, and Self-Regulation Processes in Self-Directed Leadership Development. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2) 203-226.

Reichard, R. J., & Johnson S. K. (2011). Leader self-development as organizational strategy. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(2011), 33-42.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.