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Self-Reflection: The Super-Power of Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
January 27, 2023

All too often new leaders are placed in an unfamiliar setting, expected to figure out by themselves what they are doing well and what they may need to change. They are offered a heart-felt “Congrats and good luck,” but without a nudge in the right direction, few stumble on a core leadership skill—the act of self-reflection. That’s unfortunate, because self-reflection is considered by many to be the foundation from which all other soft skills grow. In fact, many schools incorporate reflection exercises that encourage students to undertake an intentional and active review of what they are doing as a tool to improve performance.

What is Self-Reflection?

What exactly is self-reflection? For the most part, it’s a self-directed, informal learning process that involves curiosity and honesty. It’s using the experiences of the day—without regret or bias—to think about your actions and their consequences, exploring what worked and what didn’t. The goal is to extract value from your successes and mistakes to help you learn more about your behavior and your assumptions.

It takes intention—and quite frankly a bit of courage—to candidly consider your experiences and question the way you work. Slowing down and taking the time to understand your expectations, or why you reacted a certain way, can provide valuable insights that show you where you need to change or where you need to develop additional expertise. When done with the goal of learning in mind, reflecting on your experiences becomes particularly valuable in heightening your awareness of how you think about yourself as a leader. Self-reflection can provide clarity on your current skills, your strengths and your weaknesses, and help you evaluate whether your actions align with your goals.

To be clear, there is a difference between self-reflecting and obsessing over your actions. Taking the process too far can leave you feeling anxious and stressed. To stay in the mode of reflecting, it’s helpful to focus more on “what” questions than “why.” Asking yourself “what” questions helps you stay curious and open to learning, with a focus on future possibilities.

Six Steps to Self-Reflection

To incorporate self-reflection into your leadership development regimen, consider the following steps:

  1. Start small. Block out 10-15 minutes where you can reflect on how you showed up as a leader that day. The goal is to consistently take time to reflect and process what you’ve learned.
  2. Experiment with different formats. You can reflect with a trusted mentor or colleague, dictate your thoughts using a recorder app, or write down your thoughts and feelings. If one approach doesn’t work for you, try something else.
  3. Focus. Identify a specific area you want to focus on for your reflections. You could explore how you led a recent meeting, how you showed up for an important conversation, or how you interacted with a difficult colleague.
  4. Check negativity bias. As you go through your reflection, be honest and realistic. We all have unique weaknesses, and it’s appropriate to acknowledge them, but the point isn’t to dwell on them. Remember, the goal is to mine your experiences for the positive, not the negative.
  5. Explore your leadership strengths. Include in your self-reflection the positive aspects of you as a leader. You may even want to start off your reflection process by identifying two or three things that you like about yourself as a leader or accomplishments you feel contribute to you being a good leader. Starting out by acknowledging what you are doing well can counter feelings of being overwhelmed.
  6. Prompts. Compile a running list of prompts or themes that you can use to guide your self-reflections. They may include:
  • What went well? (a meeting, a conversation, a presentation, etc.)
  • What might have made it more successful?
  • What would I want to do differently next time to be more effective?
  • What options do I see for the next time I encounter this situation?
  • What did I learn? (about myself, about others, about my assumptions, etc.)
  • What am I ignoring or playing down?
  • What shifts do I need to make?
  • What additional skill development do I need?
  • What strategy would I like to use next time?


In our fast-changing environment, creating space to consider the lessons that you are learning allows you to better understand yourself and others, which accelerates your leadership development. As you incorporate self-reflection into your daily routine, go easy on yourself. Focus on solutions and your plans to improve. As John Dewey wisely offered, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding a variety of executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Research Fellow with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, LLC, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at April@ Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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