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By William Hatcher
The start of a New Year brings a time for reflection. It is a time to make personal resolutions, and as many do, break them by February. But for public managers the resolution to practice self-reflection should be kept and practiced year round. Through self-reflection, public managers in community development can improve their work and communities, and in doing so, hopefully help strengthen the public’s trust in government.
Throughout January, PA Times is focusing on the importance of improving the public’s trust in government. Since the 1970s, the public has become increasingly skeptical of governmental institutions. At first, most of the skepticism was focused on that national government. But in recent years, state and local institutions have experienced declining levels of public trust. Obviously, this is a dangerous trend for the effectiveness of public administration and the overall health of our democracy. While there are many culprits (for one, our elected officials are certainly not blameless) and factors to blame for this declining trust, public administration has a role to play in demonstrating excellent management, highlighting administrative successes, and making the case for public services. Self-reflection can help managers achieve these goals.
Reflective Managers and Leaders
In his book, The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schon builds on the early works of John Dewey and argues that professionals must continually expand their knowledge by learning from experience. The reflective practitioner uses this knowledge to make improvements to their work. History gives us countless examples of leaders who have possessed the ability to reflect on their decisions. History also shows us that self-reflection is the product of learning from meaningful life experiences and being able to practice self-inquiry by critically examining one’s behavior and work.
First, the practice of self-reflection is linked to learning from significant life experiences. Theodore Roosevelt is known for being the champion of “trust busting”—the breaking up of companies with monopoly holds on economic industries. As president and a central actor in the Progressive Movement, Roosevelt had an appreciation for the hardships facing the working classes even though he was raised in a privileged family. As many biographies of Roosevelt have noted, including Doris Kerns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, the trust buster shared many of the negative views of the poor held by elites prior to his work as a police commissioner in New York City during the 1890s. From his role as police commissioner, Roosevelt witnessed the negative effects that adjacent poverty was having on the city and its people. This experience pushed him to reexamine his viewpoints on many issues, experiencing a type of self-reflection that allowed him to grow as a leader. He was also able to learn from other dramatic life experiences, such as shouldering the pain of having his mother and first wife die on the same night in the same house.
Being able to critically examine one’s behavior and thoughts is another key component of self-reflective leadership. In his book The Moral of the Story, Henry Edmondson III gives the example of Henry V’s walk among his soldiers, portrayed in Shakespeare’s play about the king the night before the Battle of Agincourt. Facing a superior French army, Henry disguised himself as a common soldier and walked among his army to gauge the mood of the fighters. His talks with the soldiers led him to reflect on the ethics of war and his burden as the king. Most importantly, from a management standpoint, the self-reflection helped Henry devised a strategy for the battle and helped inspire his army with his “band of brothers” speech. In his play, Shakespeare shows how Henry’s act of self-reflection improved his role as a leader.
Self-Reflection in Public Administration and Community Development
What can our field do to promote self-reflection in public managers? Self-reflection, like emotional intelligence, is one of those traits of a manager that cannot be easily taught in the classroom setting. However, public administration education can help instill an appreciation for reflection in a number of ways. First, MPA programs need to include assignments that push students toward reflection. Our MPA program at Eastern Kentucky University has built in reflective components to help future managers learn from experience. For example, our students must complete an internship in a nonprofit or governmental agency. Throughout the internship experience, the students maintain a reflective journal. At the end of the process they write a reflective paper focusing on the differences and similarities between their experienced practice and the material taught in their classes.
Second, curriculum can use fiction in literature and film to help express self-reflection. In a 2006 essay published in Public Integrity, I argued that the use of fiction in the classroom helps illustrate key concepts of management such as empathy, moral leadership and also the dangers of dysfunctional government. A character like Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird, ideally demonstrates the importance of public courage and leadership for future managers. On the other hand, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a story of an innocent man being charged with an unknown crime and being executed for that offense by an irrational bureaucracy, can be used to warn students about dysfunctional government.
Recent scholarship has argued for an even more intensive approach to learning from experience. Writing in Administration & Society, Ann L. Cunliffe and Jong S. Jun call for public administration to be reflexive, focusing on improvement through individuals critically examining their contributions to their organizations. Whether it is called reflective or reflexive, the practice of self-examination and learning through reflection can help managers improve their communities.
Successful communities are those that learn from experience and can adapt to changing environments. At times, this may happen in an evolutionary fashion or by chance. But in other cases, the adaption is guided by self-reflective leaders. Having managers competent in reflective practice will help communities engage in the ongoing process of developing a vision, implementing that vision and readjusting the vision. This process is one of learning from experience. By practicing self-reflection, managers will help direct their communities toward experiential learning. And by doing the process better, managers will contribute to efforts to increase the public’s trust in government.