Critical Self-Reflection: A Primer for Leadership Coaches

By MacPherson, Mike | T&D, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Critical Self-Reflection: A Primer for Leadership Coaches


MacPherson, Mike, T&D


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For the last 20 years, there has been exponential growth in the number of leadership coaches in corporations and political organizations. The job of leadership coaches is to work with leaders to help them think through leadership and organizational issues and to hold leaders accountable to their commitments. They ask challenging and provocative questions that leaders have to answer. That is the basis of the agreement.

I believe that the best coaches are those who are able to create the conditions necessary to engage leaders, primarily through conversation, in the type of searching and self-questioning that I call "critical self-reflection" (CSR). The ability to engage in CSR is linked to the leader's self-realization and to the deeply felt commitment to a compelling vision.

While this is an art and skill that is developed over time, there is a body of knowledge that coaches can draw on to help leaders examine themselves--the area of transformative adult learning theory. Leadership coaches should become familiar with the definition of CSR, understand the seven variations that are particularly relevant to the coaching situation, and learn proven ways to stimulate this form of introspective and self-analytical thought.

Definition

When people talk about reflection, self-reflective consciousness, reflexivity, or other variations of the "reflection" concept, there is an uncritically accepted connotation of goodness. But how are we to know if something is good if we lack a clear definition? In my research, I have defined CSR in a very specific way, based on the focus of one's attention and the quality of consciousness.

As such, CSR is defined as that form of thinking in which the focus of our attention is inward, on some aspect of ourselves, such as our thoughts, emotions, language, or behavior. In addition, the quality of consciousness is questioning or critical in nature and includes the consideration of alternatives.

When coaches understand this definition, they can recognize when leaders are focusing outward, thereby deflecting away from themselves, or when they are not being self-questioning or critical. They can then bring leaders back to CSR by asking questions that provoke self-examination. Effective coaches act as mirrors, and they challenge leaders to do the difficult work of looking within. It is work that requires focus, empathy, and an understanding of cognitive processes.

Variations of critical self-reflection

While CSR is defined as an inward focus of attention on self, with a questioning and critical quality of consciousness, there are ways to distinguish different variations of CSR, and this deeper level of insight will be very useful for a leadership coach. These variations include CSR on

* the past

* the future

* social and economic context of thought patterns

* use of language

* awareness of emotions

* behaviors.

The past: CSR on our socialization and early life experience. When we critically examine our socialization and early life experience, we begin to see how many of our ideas and norms were influenced by these experiences. In this form of CSR, we dig into the past to try to determine the source of some of our current ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving. This includes looking at what our parents and families were like, and examining our youth and adolescence to assess the influence of teachers, coaches, ministers, exposure to the media, or involvement in clubs that influenced our formation as individuals. In other words, we look at the factors of socialization.

An excellent technique to stimulate this type of CSR is creating an assumption grid. First, create a list of influences from the past down the left vertical column of a spreadsheet. Then, across the top row, write out some concepts, such as communication, authority, power, and leadership. …

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