Leadership, Learning, and Critical Reflection

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Learning is essential to leadership (Brown & Posner, 2001). Catch-phrases such as “Leadership is Learning,” “The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners,” and “A Sign of Great Leadership is Continuous Learning” are just a few of the many examples of what one might hear or read about during their leadership journey. While true, learning alone is not enough. Leadership requires decision-making skills (Farrell, 2017). Sound decisions require exceptional knowledge, understanding, and accurate perspectives. These can only be had through transformational learning and when critical reflection is the focus.  

The Importance of Learning

When it comes to acquiring information, it is important to understand the difference between education and learning. For instance, education is defined as knowledge gained via teachers at a school or university (Education, 2019). However, it would be more accurate to describe education as the process of passing knowledge and skills to a student in a structured setting. Either way, the question of reception then comes into play.

Learning and education are not the same things. It is important to note that real learning does not require formal classes, earning credentials, or proving to someone else that one has acquired the knowledge or skill. Instead, learning is the actual process of acquiring new knowledge and skill (Learning, 2019). So while earning credentials via formal education in the chosen discipline is likely important for serious professionals, we should pay homage to the idea that learning can also be done through self-directed learning and experience. In fact, self-directed learning is often indispensable when moving on from formal education.

Learning, specifically, is essential because it allows us to make sense of the world around us while giving us the necessary contexts to examine and analyze the situations we face. This naturally reduces fear through the obliteration of ignorance. It has been said that “Ignorance is not only the mother of superstition; she is also the parent of fear” (Education a Cure for Bigotry, 1830). When we learn, we reduce fears via the reduction of ignorance, which often reduces uncertainty. This concept is of particular importance for leaders. For example, early signs of leadership paralysis include the disruption or abandonment of a successful strategy in the attempt to maintain the status quo, which often comes from a fear of change that is likely rooted in ignorance or uncertainty (Howell & Avolio, 1992).

Knowledge is POWER

We should recognize the common goal of both education and learning, which is the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge is facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education (Knowledge, 2019). Of course, the goal is to gain a strong theoretical or practical understanding of the subject being studied. We gain a strategic advantage through this acquisition by having a more substantial, reality-based perception of the materials or situations before us, which would be absent otherwise.  

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon said: “ipsa scientia potestas est,” which means “knowledge itself is power” (Rodrígez, 2001). It is likely self-evident that power is not created; it is transferred. With this in mind, it would then behoove anyone seeking any empowerment to pursue knowledge relentlessly. However, this can only be done through learning. This is to say that just because one participates in formal education does not mean that they have acquired or retained the presented information. In this case, a strong theoretical or practical understanding of the subject being reviewed can be missed. When this happens, learning has not occurred, and any missed concepts cannot be transformed into actual knowledge. On the other hand, learning ensures that we transform information and experiences into knowledge and skills that are useful. Still, and when it comes to leadership, learning itself may not be enough.

Transformational Learning: The Next Step

Transformational Learning Theory, which was originally developed by Jack Mezirow, is described as being “constructivist, an orientation which holds that the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning” (Mezirow, 1991). Essentially, transformational learning is the process of learning something to the degree that it goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition. This type of learning ensures that learners can proactively and consciously find deeper meaning from the knowledge gained and then apply it in their lives or profession.

There are several key concepts to transformational learning. These concepts are experience, critical reflection, and development (Merriam, Baumgartner, & Caffarella, 2012). While all three of these are essential to transformational learning, critical reflection should be of particular importance because experience alone is merely the contact with facts or events. In this context, development is merely the growth, elaboration, and perhaps, application of the information being reflected upon. The strong theoretical or practical understanding that we seek comes from the critical reflection step (Merriam, Baumgartner, & Caffarella, 2012).

Critical Reflection Explained

Simple reflection is useful, but it will likely not provide a deep understanding that a leader needs. One might reflect upon an experience or lesson, develop a thought, idea, or opinion due to that experience or lesson, or even contemplate a point, purpose, or subject when faced with an experience or idea. This type of reflection is broad and helps us navigate our lives and perhaps develop a general understanding of the world around us. Most of us have engaged in this type of basic reflection.

Critical reflection takes it a step further. Critical reflection allows us to establish deeper meaning and understanding about what we have learned and develop further, and strategically use the information being transformed. It also provides us the opportunity to question and challenge established assumptions and formulate new questions and ideas to explore (Shandomo, 2010). The benefits of such reflection are seemingly endless, so it is important to understand what it is and how to engage in it.

A leading scholar on the topic is Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield (Merriam, Baumgartner, & Caffarella, 2012). Brookfield states that there are four steps to critical reflection. These steps are Assumption Analysis, Contextual Awareness, Imaginative Speculation, and Reflective Skepticism (Brookfield, 1988). These can be explained briefly by reviewing the following:

  • Assumption Analysis: Challenging our current beliefs to determine their value and impact on our lives.
  • Contextual Awareness: Determining the contexts that influence our way of seeing reality.
  • Imaginative Speculation: Examining ideas that challenge our current thought process or actions.
  • Reflective Skepticism: Questioning ideas by suspending our current knowledge about the subject. 

The Leadership Benefits of Critical Reflection

Simply speaking, critical reflection is a proactive exercise that seeks to confront bias, gain perspective, develop alternatives, discover gaps in our worldviews, identify systemic issues, generate and articulate questions, foster creativity, contrast theory with practice, and proficiently examine the relationship between cause and effect (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p. 27). As a result, one gains a greater ability to have bolder visions, set more precise goals, establish clearer plans, have sounder thoughts, and establish a deeper appreciation for the materials being reviewed; all necessary for personal and organizational leadership and critical in the decision-making process. Considering this idea, it becomes clear that while learning is essential to greater leadership, critical reflection is essential to greater understanding. Therefore, one could speculate that any leader or organization would suffer greatly without it.

One should not take critical reflection lightly, though.  As Mezirow said, “Critical reflection addresses the question of the justification for the very premises on which problems are posed or defined in the first place” (Mezirow, 2002). In this exercise, you often attack the validity of ideas that you have attached to your core. Mezirow goes on to say that “To question the validity of a long-taken-for-granted meaning perspective predicated on a presupposition about oneself can involve the negation of values that have been very close to the center of one’s self-concept” (Mezirow, 2002). In other words, and if you are doing it right, your perspectives and values will likely change or refine, and a leader must be prepared to change a perspective, position, or direction accordingly.

critical reflection

Tools for Critical Reflection

As demonstrated, the practice of critical reflection is a process. However, of the research that I have reviewed, there does not currently seem to be a single best method or practice for its exercise. Regardless, any chosen method requires taking some extra time for deep thought and strategic mindfulness following the four steps previously provided. And if done correctly, it is an on-going practice.

There are plenty of tools that can be utilized for critical reflection. Arguably, the simplest and easiest is just exploring your thoughts in journals or notebooks by answering open-ended questions. While seemingly infinite, some appropriate questions might include: What did I learn from this experience? What types of bias can I identify in myself about this situation? How can I apply this information moving forward? What are some of the reasons that I agree or disagree? Are these good enough reasons? Is there information that contradicts my belief on this matter? What parts of the contrasting information are valid? What parts of the information I trust are likely invalid, and why? And finally, what else could or should I learn about the subject to have a better understanding?

With the answers provided by such questions, one can gain a stronger perspective regarding the subject. As such, that person would then be in a stronger position regarding their decision-making because they would have a more robust view and understanding of the topic or situation at hand. Better information and perspective will undoubtedly increase the odds of making better decisions, and that is why such exercises are critical for leaders.

Conclusion

It boils down to a simple equation. Leaders are in the business of making decisions. Sound decisions require exceptional knowledge, understanding, and accurate perspectives. These can be achieved through transformational learning, with critical reflection being a primary focus. For leaders, critical reflection is essential because it allows us to establish deeper meaning and understanding about what we have learned, which ultimately allows leaders to make better decisions.


Did you enjoy this article? Then you might also like my article titled: Beware of Self-Serving Bias


Resources

Ash, S.L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25-48.

Brookfield, S. (1988). Training educators of adults: The theory and practice of graduate adult education. London: Routledge.

Brown, L. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2001). Exploring the relationship between learning and leadership. Leadership & Organization Development Journal22(6), 274–280. doi: 10.1108/01437730110403204

Education. (2019). In Oxford Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/education

Education a Cure for Bigotry. (1830). Watchman & Christian Repository, 1(50), 200.

Farrell, M. (2017). Leadership Reflections: Leadership Skills for Knowledge Management. Journal of Library Administration, 57(6), 674–682. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2017.1340768

Howell, J. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1992). The ethics of charismatic leadership: submission or liberation? Academy of Management Perspectives6(2), 43–54. doi: 10.5465/ame.1992.4274395

Knowledge. (2019). In Oxford Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/knowledge

Learning. (2019). In Oxford Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/learning

Merriam, S. B., Baumgartner, L., & Caffarella, R. S. (2012). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (The Jossey-bass Higher and Adult Education Series). Wiley.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Fransisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2002). How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning.

Rodrígez García, J. (2001). Scientia Potestas Est – Knowledge is Power: Francis Bacon to Michel Foucault. Neohelicon, 28(1), 109.

Shandomo, H. M. (2010). The Role of Critical Reflection in Teacher Education. School-University Partnerships, 4(1), 101–113.

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