[Please note: Additional articles on reflective leadership can be found here.]

What is Reflective Leadership?

The oth­er day I was throw­ing around the words, “reflec­tive lead­er­ship” when a client stopped me and asked me to explain exact­ly what I meant. I found myself using a fami­lar tool in the human devel­op­ment field, the Johari Win­dow, cre­at­ed by Joe Luft and Har­ry Ing­ham in 1955. The mod­el is a way to look at inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships and process­es. It is formed of four “panes” that high­light what we under­stand about our­selves com­pared with how much oth­ers know about us. 

Let me share how the mod­el works before com­ing back to my def­i­n­i­tion of reflec­tive leadership.

When you and I share com­mon per­cep­tions, trust and com­mu­ni­ca­tion are like­ly to be high­er, our con­ver­sa­tions are more open, and our prob­lem-solv­ing is eas­i­er. This area, where “what I know about myself” and “what oth­ers know about me” are the same is called the Are­na. For exam­ple, I know my eyes are brown and by look­ing at me you can see that that is so. We don’t dis­agree over this fact. Sim­i­lar­ly, if our sub­jec­tive judg­ments are the same — for instance if you believe I am intel­li­gent and I see myself as intel­li­gent, too — our rela­tion­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are like­ly to be quite open around this point. 

How­ev­er, if what I think about myself is dif­fer­ent than what oth­ers think of me, my rela­tion­ships could be affect­ed by my Blindspot. Per­haps I see myself as very open-mind­ed and inter­per­son­al­ly sen­si­tive, but oth­ers do not see me this way. If I am con­front­ed about this dif­fer­ence two things are like­ly to hap­pen: I will react emo­tion­al­ly and defen­sive­ly, and I will like­ly exhib­it the very behav­iors that con­firm the nature of the Blind Spot (e.g., you sug­gest to me I am insen­si­tive to your feel­ings and I react in a way that dis­plays this insen­si­tiv­i­ty). This is the area of denial — where we can’t see what we can’t see, poten­tial­ly caus­ing mis­un­der­stand­ings, mis­trust, and “undis­cuss­ables” in our rela­tion­ships with one another.

The third area, the Facade, reflects what I know about myself that I keep hid­den and choose not to share. I might not want to dis­close, for exam­ple, that I was fired from my last job, so in my rela­tion­ships with my new co-work­ers I avoid con­ver­sa­tions that could lead to ques­tions about my for­mer work his­to­ry. I might even lie about what hap­pened if asked direct­ly. Oth­er aspects that we keep hid­den include our pri­vate opin­ions of oth­ers or judg­ments that feel too risky to share. I may not share open­ly my per­cep­tions of my boss’s insen­si­tiv­i­ty. In this way, my facade may have some­thing to do with your Blind Spot (and also, per­haps, my own!)

Final­ly, the fourth area, the Unknown, reflects shared lack of aware­ness. It rep­re­sents pure poten­tial that is con­stant­ly in a process of evo­lu­tion and emer­gence. This is an area of great mys­tery, accessed through our intu­itions, feel­ings, dreams, med­i­ta­tions, and spir­i­tu­al or artis­tic self-inquiries. You know it when you see it. For instance, an acquain­tance starts behav­ing in ways that sug­gests he is “not quite him­self” — and he agrees with you and also real­ly does­n’t know why he is behav­ing as he is. That’s the Unknown show­ing up.

The Goal

The Are­na clar­i­fies the fun­da­men­tal inter­per­son­al goal of reflec­tive lead­er­ship with the oth­er panes defin­ing key tasks to achiev­ing it. The Are­na is the place where our shared under­stand­ing of our­selves puts us in real and gen­uine con­tact with one anoth­er, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, and spir­i­tu­al­ly, and there­fore gives us the capac­i­ty to cre­ate a com­mon vision for change. Out of this con­tact comes a rich sense of who we are for one anoth­er; our assump­tions about our­selves, oth­ers, and the sys­tems with­in which we oper­ate; how much we will trust and col­lab­o­rate with one anoth­er; our self-inter­ests, needs, and desired pay­offs; and how we will deploy our sep­a­rate gifts toward a com­mon end. Our indi­vid­ual and shared self-knowl­edge becomes our shared capac­i­ty to lead. Reflec­tive lead­ers are inten­tion­al around this goal and intense­ly con­scious of the lev­el at which they are con­nect­ing with others.

Cre­at­ing a wide-open Are­na with oth­ers varies in the time and effort we choose to give to it. Once in awhile you or I find a spon­ta­neous sense of com­mu­nion (of com­mu­ni­ty) with anoth­er per­son. When that hap­pens, it can be a lit­tle sur­pris­ing, pret­ty much like find­ing a new friend, whether or not that friend­ship lasts a life­time or only for a few moments. In oth­er cas­es, that con­nec­tion is a task that is con­scious­ly and inten­tion­al­ly worked at in the way the part­ners of a busi­ness or of a mar­riage work at it, con­stant­ly deep­en­ing to find a way through the thick­ets of past con­di­tion­ing and pri­vate his­to­ries. Some­times those “thick­ets” turn out to be con­ti­nents. No mat­ter, the goal is to tru­ly “meet” the oth­er, and that inevitably dri­ves the reflec­tive leader to access each of the three oth­er tasks implied by the oth­er panes of the Johari Window.

The Tasks

The reflec­tive lead­er­ship task asso­ci­at­ed with the Blindspot is under­stand­ing per­son­al impact. We are all prone to be unaware of some aspects of our­selves and to defend against aware­ness. The quest for self-knowl­edge can take us on a jour­ney through the under­world of per­son­al demons we would real­ly rather avoid. But fail­ing to take that jour­ney restricts our capac­i­ties to move in the world and pos­i­tive­ly influ­ence our sur­round­ings. A leader who does not know about what oth­ers see and know about him or her is uncon­scious­ly build­ing a tightrope for oth­ers to walk or set­ting up a labyrinth for them to find their way through. What is not seen, and what facil­i­tates gen­uine aware­ness is not only nam­ing the blind spot but also under­stand­ing its full impact. For exam­ple, if I have trou­ble accept­ing myself (but don’t acknowl­edge it), I may be prone to being swayed by oth­ers who ques­tion my judg­ments. My being swayed by oth­ers inap­pro­pri­ate­ly then has an effect: I can’t be trust­ed in my deci­sions because it seems that my deci­sions change too eas­i­ly and are based on who I last talked to. Or, on the oth­er side of that coin, if I have trou­ble keep­ing an open mind because I don’t ques­tion myself enough (and don’t acknowl­edge that), I may also lose trust, dri­ving peo­ple to stay away from me to under­mine the deci­sions I have made. Depend­ing on the size of an orga­ni­za­tion or change effort, these impacts of a lead­er’s blindspots mul­ti­ply their effects. The for­tunes of a For­tune 100 com­pa­ny, let alone a small­er enter­prise, can be eas­i­ly thrown off. A reflec­tive leader always wants to know how an enter­prise or change effort is a reflec­tion of per­son­al style. “How is this thing I’ve found­ed and cre­at­ed over the years,” a small busi­ness own­er might ask, “lim­it­ed by who I am?” A reflec­tive leader will ask for per­son­al feed­back con­stant­ly and look for the pat­terns that get in the way. That leader intu­itive­ly knows that dis­miss­ing the impor­tance of per­son­al blindspots is pre­cise­ly what gives those blindspots their pow­er and effect in the world. The worst case is the leader who believes he or she has no blindspots. This is dis­as­ter in the making.

A sec­ond task of reflec­tive lead­er­ship is authen­tic­i­ty, the prac­tice of “show­ing up” in a way that is gen­uine and true and real as a per­son. The facade rep­re­sents the cho­sen lim­its of authen­tic­i­ty. Most of us are good at hold­ing infor­ma­tion pri­vate, includ­ing infor­ma­tion that might be very use­ful to oth­ers, as a way to pro­tect our­selves and we, frankly, are not alto­geth­er aware of how hid­den we may be. We live in an imper­fect world and need to be savvy. We enjoy and even envy at moments the child’s refresh­ing naivete in speak­ing her mind or ask­ing ques­tions but we’ve learned as adults, almost as a sec­ond nature, there may be a cost to per­son­al open­ness. Some of this is appro­pri­ate, some not. A reflec­tive leader is high­ly aware of the point when that lack of per­son­al open­ness becomes a pat­tern of dys­func­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion, when what he or she is not say­ing gets in the way of the very changes he or she would like to bring about or is oth­er­wise incon­gru­ent with close­ly held per­son­al val­ues. The reflec­tive leader opens the dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions that peo­ple in rela­tion­ship need to have, mod­els a con­nec­tive, respect­ful vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and shows not only that such con­ver­sa­tions are “sur­viv­able” but that they are frankly essen­tial to the sur­vival of rela­tion­ships (and per­haps the enter­prise, too).

Final­ly, the third task is to enter the Unknown. Above all this is the spir­i­tu­al task of indi­vid­ual growth into poten­tials that have not yet come into per­son­al or group con­scious­ness. This is the task of find­ing one’s call­ing and des­tiny where the unique mean­ing of one’s life and work becomes man­i­fest and is con­scious­ly expe­ri­enced. The words here are cum­ber­some because enter­ing the Unknown is the place where choice com­bines with an inar­tic­u­late some­thing pre-exist­ing, an “acorn” that a per­son expe­ri­ences with­in that becomes through the course of a life-time the oak tree that is “meant to be.” A reflec­tive leader takes the task of unearthing this acorn seri­ous­ly, know­ing that it is only through this dis­cov­ery that he or she will find real joy and ful­fill­ment and have the sta­mi­na to lead in the world.

A leader who becomes cen­tered in the goal of con­nec­tion, who is open to learn­ing about his or her blindspots, who sees through his or her own per­son­al facades and leads into need­ed, pow­er­ful con­ver­sa­tions, who gives time and effort to dis­cov­er­ing the per­son­al mean­ings of work and life — that per­son can be said to lead reflectively. 

There is so much more that could be voiced about any of these points as parts of the def­i­n­i­tion of reflec­tive lead­er­ship. But for today, it is enough — a good start.


A few moments ago, a friend sug­gest­ed a call to action that needs to be includ­ed here: “Think of one action you could take today to prac­tice what I’ve sug­gest­ed in this post and let me know how it went.” 

This is a great idea. So if you have a mind to, please email me or sim­ply com­ment below!

Technorati Tag: Reflective Leadership


  • An effec­tive and affec­tive piece about reflec­tive leadership!

    Thanks for intro­duc­ing me to the Johari Win­dow — a clear and sim­ple way of carv­ing up and delv­ing into an immense­ly com­plex space. Per­son­al­ly, I often strug­gle with dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing between facade and blindspot — it seems to me as though the for­mer has to do with con­scious [self-]deception and the lat­ter has to do with uncon­scious [self-]deception … and my con­scious­ness or aware­ness are mov­ing tar­gets (at best). I also find it increas­ing­ly chal­leng­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between I and Thou (or Us and Them) … or, for that mat­ter, my shad­ow and gold.

    I found myself rumi­nat­ing about the notion of a mir­ror — an impor­tant tool in reflec­tion — and how each per­son acts as a mir­ror for me … and I for them. This, in turn, remind­ed me of some reflec­tions I’d shared about the mag­net­ic attrac­tion of awak­ened peo­ple:

    I was also remind­ed of Ori­ah Moun­tain Dream­er’s obser­va­tions in her audio­tape, Your Heart’s Prayer — which I’d ear­li­er pro­ject­ed onto the prac­tice of unfold­ing through blog­ging — about peo­ple who come into con­tact with spir­i­tu­al­ly enlight­ened indi­vid­u­als, such as Mahat­ma Ghan­di or Moth­er Tere­sa, liken­ing the expe­ri­ence to what hap­pens when two tun­ing forks com­ing into prox­im­i­ty of each oth­er: the strong vibra­tion of the spir­i­tu­al­ly enlight­ened per­son trans­mits ener­gy to any oth­er per­son that comes near.

    It seems to me that one pos­si­ble def­i­n­i­tion (or dimen­sion) of a reflec­tive leader is one who is able to reflect — and there­by mag­ni­fy — the ener­gies of those around him or her.

    I don’t know what I’ll put into prac­tice today, but last week I left my job, and decid­ed to give one last pre­sen­ta­tion to my soon-to-be-for­mer col­leagues. I could­n’t sleep the night before, so I final­ly got up and start­ed adding new slides to my pre­sen­ta­tion, pref­aced with one that start­ed out with “We’re only as sick as our secrets”. Although it was tru­ly the best job I’ve ever had (I’m leav­ing it for one I think I’ll love even more), I decid­ed to reflect pub­licly on some of the shad­ows and fears I’d expe­ri­enced there — per­cep­tions and pro­jec­tions that are entire­ly my own … and yet may be shared by oth­ers who con­tin­ue on. I was moti­vat­ed by dis­cus­sions of “undis­cus­si­bles” here on this blog … and by Mar­i­anne Will­liamson’s inspir­ing reflec­tions on Our Deep­est Fear — by acknowl­edg­ing my fear, I was hop­ing to lib­er­ate myself, and in so doing lib­er­ate oth­ers … at least to dis­cuss their fears … even after I leave.

    Any­how, I now feel I am enter­ing the Unknown — the third task you high­light — in being giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to prac­tice a greater lev­el of lead­er­ship in a new orga­ni­za­tion, so thank you for help­ing to chart that ter­ri­to­ry. Return­ing to your ques­tion about what I want to prac­tice today: what I want to prac­tice is mov­ing beyond find­ing my own call­ing or des­tiny, and help oth­ers find their call­ing and des­tiny … and more specif­i­cal­ly to find oth­ers whose call­ing and des­tiny align well with the high per­for­mance team I will be form­ing, so I can focus less on man­age­ment and more on coor­di­na­tion and facilitation.

  • Joe

    Thank you for these beau­ti­ful “reflec­tions” of you. This whole state­ment, Joe, vibrates with a sense of lib­er­a­tion and excite­ment, a sign of a major step for­ward on your path. Con­grat­u­la­tions. I know you will attract the right ener­gies and peo­ple to sur­round you in your new venture.

  • INVOLVE Blog wrote:

    Lead­er­ship — How The Johari Win­dow Can Help Reflec­tive Leaders…

    Whilst we’ve been fol­low­ing var­i­ous IC and relat­ed blogs for a good while now, our own blog is all shiny and new and some way off hav­ing that ‘lived in’ look of a more estab­lished blog. So, we’re spend­ing (prob­a­bly…

  • […] What is Reflec­tive Leadership? and an archive for oth­er arti­cles here. […]

  • Abbas Hamid Mahamat wrote:

    Thank you very much; this arti­cle is very improtant guide line for me to help me to achieve what I intend to do for myself, my fam­i­ly, and my company.
    Abbas Hamid

  • You are wel­come, please keep reading!

  • Jeff Frick wrote:

    Reminds me of a poem I had writ­ten a few years back:

    When I look in the mirror
    What do I see
    Reflec­tions of my life
    Look­ing back at me
    Every­thing I thought about
    In the dis­tant past
    Reflect­ed back to me
    In the look­ing glass

    The pow­er of authen­tic­i­ty, per­son­al impact, and a voy­age into the unknown
    is a jour­ney we are all on. Some of us far­ther ahead, but with open hands to lead oth­ers along the path.

  • Thank you, Jeff! Your short poem cap­tures the essence — “Every­thing I thought about…” is still there. 

    Thanks so much for shar­ing this small, bright crys­tal from your own experience.

    Best to you

  • I am a prac­tic­ing train­er of IR issues and I find Johari win­dow as one of the most eas­i­ly under­stood and appre­ci­at­ed tool. Late­ly I am encoun­ter­ing a typ­i­cal feel­ing com­ing up in my mind through var­i­ous inter­ac­tion that peo­ple are most­ly using the “win­dow” to see out­side that is to see oth­ers rather than see­ing themselves.
    I won­der why not to call it Johari “mir­ror” rather than “win­dow” so that to make peo­ple look at it to find them­selves rather than look­ing through, see­ing oth­ers and being com­pla­cent that oth­ers are also not OK. Please comment.

  • I think your point is excel­lent, and if I were doing the train­ing I’d make an obser­va­tion about how easy it is to slip into judg­ments of oth­ers, voiced or held pri­vate­ly, based on the win­dow. (The term, win­dow, was orig­i­nal to the authors who cre­at­ed the mod­el so you would­n’t want to shift that ter­mi­nol­o­gy in your materials). 

    For exam­ple, I might remind peo­ple that if at that moment in the train­ing they found them­selves think­ing about oth­ers and how they fit the mod­el, then sure­ly oth­ers are also think­ing of them and doing much the same thing. Then I would use that infor­ma­tion to illus­trate the dynam­ics of the mod­el itself re: the blind spot and facade. You could then eas­i­ly point out how notic­ing your own reac­tions to the “win­dow” also makes it a “mir­ror” — if we are brave enough to look “into” it in that way.

    A favorite sto­ry I use in such cir­cum­stances is one from a friend, who one day told his ther­a­pist, “I final­ly can see my wife’s shad­ow (blind spot).” The ther­a­pist replied, “that’s quite inter­est­ing, because usu­al­ly when peo­ple believe they see oth­er’s shad­ow clear­ly, they most often are stand­ing in their own.”

    Self-knowl­edge is tricky, and you your­self can help be the mir­ror for par­tic­i­pants in your train­ing envi­ron­ment. Telling a sto­ry or two about your­self and your own expe­ri­ences of the four quad­rants, can also help make it safe for oth­ers to acknowl­edge some of their own issues. If that can be done in good humor, and with a sense of per­spec­tive, it can fos­ter a nice sense of awakening. 

    I’ve always found the mod­el deep­er than it looks. It can arouse defen­sive­ness; par­tic­u­lar­ly the blind spot. So anoth­er tech­nique I often use is to tell sto­ries — either about myself or oth­ers — where my blind spot was noticed and the imme­di­ate behav­ior repli­cat­ed the infor­ma­tion. For exam­ple, some­one sug­gest­ing I can be patron­iz­ing is like­ly to elic­it my blind spot patron­iz­ing behav­ior as a response!

    I hope this is help­ful to you in think­ing about how you can best use your own and oth­ers’ reac­tions to the mod­el to help peo­ple under­stand its true power.

  • Found the arti­cle thought pro­vok­ing , haven’t worked with Johari Win­dow , real­ly like the way you brought about the reflec­tive lead­er­ship through this con­cept .It is clear and compelling.

  • llah — Thank you for your kind com­ments. I am hap­py the arti­cle was of val­ue. Best regards to you.

  • Jayakaumar. K. M. Nair wrote:

    Look back to Indi­an epics, you will find excel­lent nar­ra­tion of the inner lead­er­ship that need to be reflect­ed towards the action.
    Let it be the Bagawat Gee­ta, the Mahab­ha­gawatam or Ramayana, they describe the reflec­tive lead­er­ship in beau­ti­ful verses

    J K M Nair, CEO and Direc­tor of Train­ing $olu­tions Inter­naiton­al Mum­bai, India

  • Thank you for the sug­ges­tion, Jayakau­mar. I’m a lit­tle famil­iar with the Bha­gavad Gita, not at all with the oth­er two — and will have to look into it! All the best to you.

  • […] is lead­ers with­out healthy inten­tions and pos­i­tive actions don’t know it because they have lit­tle self-reflec­tive capa­bil­i­ties. Ulti­mate­ly, team mem­bers flock to oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and com­pa­nies. A board may […]

  • Real­ly thanks to the famil­iar tool ‘the Johari Win­dow” by Luft and Inggam because we bet­ter under­stand the expla­na­tion of reflec­tive lead­er­ship. So interesting!

  • Johari Win­dow! My pro­fes­sor intro­duced it to me in class which I don’t usu­al­ly use. Life is like a jour­ney the unknown self. Thanks for your shar­ing and especially,the poem!

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