Reflective vs. Reflexive Leadership

by Kaveh Naficy, August 31st 2012  

Leadership is the ability to influence people to achieve a common goal. Research has shown that the success of a company is largely due to the effectiveness of its leadership. Some leaders are quick to make decisions based on preconceived notions about how the world works and what's important. Others, in contrast, take time for introspection and often seek out new information before coming to a decision. The concept of the reflexive leader versus reflective leader helps to explain how these different leaders think.

Reflexive Leadership

Reflexive Leaders react automatically when faced with seemingly familiar information or stimuli. These leaders are often "in judgment." They rapidly categorize incoming information and associate it with what they've previously experienced in their careers.

While reflexive leadership can work well in extremely urgent or mundane circumstances, leaders who adopt a reflexive approach can end up limiting their own effectiveness. Their quickness to categorize and judge undermines their ability to recognize when circumstances have changed or to learn from new experiences. As a result their decisions may be based on an erroneous foundation which results in dysfunctional leadership behaviors and enormous risks and costs to the organization. The tragic case of Research in Motion (RIM) is a great example. Despite initially inventing the smart phone, RIM's leadership could not accept that users wanted to do more with it than read their email. As a result RIM's Blackberry market share has fallen to 6.5% and their former co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, will forever be remembered as having stated that the iPhone does not represent a "sea change" for the industry.

Reflective Leadership

Reflective leaders, on the other hand, exhibit a lifelong thirst for learning. Less quick to make snap judgments, these leaders balance the practice "telling" with "asking" and often rely on the collective intelligence of their teams. Reflective leaders take the time to consider questions such as:

→ How would I describe my experience?

→ What were my thoughts and feelings while it was happening?

→ How did I react and behave?

→ What do I think about the way I felt and acted?

→ What did I learn?

→ How do I incorporate the learning into my future actions.

Instead of being "in judgment," these leaders "use judgment" in making important decisions. Richard Branson, the CEO of the Virgin Group is a vivid example of a reflective leader. He sees life as one long learning process and regularly steps out of his routine and habitual settings in order to explore, think, and learn. Often Branson retreats to his island to create space for thoughtful interactions and reflection. He has a renaissance mind and personality that encourages him to constantly experiment with a broad range of fields such as business, music/entertainment, aviation/hot air ballooning, world affairs and charity. These experiences broaden his world view, allowing him to detach and elevate from his habitual paradigms to achieve insights that can be applied to his organization.

As the business environment has grown more complex, volatile, and fast-paced, leaders are increasingly encouraged to adopt a "bias for action," but strong leaders reflect on their past experiences and seek out new, relevant insights before making critical decisions.


Changing how people work requires an understanding of the art and science of business. Forget left-brain/right brain... We think Whole Brain. Explore our insights.

Please subscribe if you like to know when we have our next blog entry.

Visit our other blogs:

Leadership Crescendo - Reflections and thoughts on leadership learned after thirty years of thinking about, experiencing, teaching and coaching executives for leadership effectiveness, written by Kaveh Naficy