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The Three “Ws” of Reflection

In the last blog post we spoke about influence and its importance to leaders.  This post focuses on reflection and its role in helping leaders influence those around them.  The key point? Before you can influence others, you need to learn about yourself and identify what you want to influence.

What is reflection?

First, let’s look at a simple, working definition of reflection. It is a distinctly human ability to reflect on our actions and by doing so, participate in continuous improvement and learning. In the particular case we are looking at, it is reflection on our experience in the workplace pertaining to our roles as leaders. It is a method of personal professional development and at the same time allows us to more easily relate it to what others are doing and thinking.  It becomes a leader’s point of reference as they lead others.

Barnett and O’Mahony in their work “Developing a Culture of Reflection: Implications for School Improvement” state:

“Therefore we define reflection as a learning process examining current or past practices, behaviors, or thoughts in order to make conscious choices about future actions. This definition implies that reflection is the combination of hindsight, insight, and foresight.”

It should be tied to our core values and beliefs.  So for example, when reflecting on action or decision we might ask ourselves, “I believe all people should be treated with respect.  Was my action respectful of the people it affected? How?” The first question asks if the action was aligned to our belief that all people should be treated with respect.  The second question forces us to think how it is aligned-what are the specific factors that made it respectful.  Reflecting on the how, helps insure we can replicate good decisions. 

Three Steps of reflection

Step One: What Happened?

Think about what happened. Identify the details, the facts and be concrete. Here are some sample questions to guide this part of the process:

  • What led up to the event?
  • Who was involved?
  • What happened during the event?
  • How did the event conclude?
  • What were you trying to accomplish?
  • What were the others involved trying to accomplish?

Step Two: Why Did It Happen?

In Step Two, we reflect on both the why and what we have learned. Again, we need to be as concrete as possible. Questions should include:

  • Why was this important to you?
  • Was it important to the others involved?
  • Why did it conclude the way it did?
  • Were their indicators/signs of this issue that could have been identified earlier?
  • Would that have affected the outcome?

Step Three: What Did We Learn?

Reflection is, in a sense, a process of monitoring ourselves and our actions.  As with every monitoring process, an essential element is analysis and application of the new information we learned.  Questions for this important step include:

  • How do you move forward?
  • What would you do the same or differently?
  • How can you anticipate future such interactions?
  • Why is what I learned important to me as a leader?
  • Why is what I learned important to the people I lead?
  • What are the pros and cons of using this information to guide my leadership style moving forward?
  • How best can I share what I have learned?

Why Reflect?

An important question to answer is, “Why?”  Everyone’s day is pretty filled already.  Why should you add something else to your plate? 

First I believe firmly that when reflection is done well, you end up managing your time well. You focus your energies on that things that matter. The things that are going to bring back not only the best returns, but also support your leadership vision.

Second, answering the questions above as part of a reflective process can help you become a more effective “change agent.”  Leaders who question themselves and analyze their actions more easly identify where they can have the most leverage and what actions can make best use of that leverage and influence.

Third, it is an exercise in self-discovery and know who you are makes it easier for you to choose actions that will demonstrate who you are to the people you lead.  Reflection helps you stay true to your convictions, beliefs and principles and that makes it easier for people to trust you.

Fourth, you develop and model a mindset of continuous improvement.  It helps create a mindset that let’s everyone know, “We need to keep learning.”


Finally, you need to the most comfortable way to document your reflections.  I use https://jrnl.com/ . It is free and searchable.

Reviewing several months or a year of reflections can help you see patterns of success and failures. Looking at the big picture as opposed to only individual circumstances yields more information that can support your leadership style. 

Brad Lomenick, author of “Humble, Hungry, and Hustle,” writes that your leadership success is built upon habitual work:

“It is worked out every day in the tasks we complete, the ways we approach our work, and the rhythms we nurture in our lives. It hangs on the hooks of the patterns we create, not just the success we may stumble upon.” 

We don’t always learn from doing, we can always learn by reflecting on what we have done.

Influencing the Change

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will address Leadership and Change.  It is an overview providing background information.  

When I think back on the people who have had an impact on my life and my decisions, there is a pattern that emerges.  More often than not, they are not people that had or have authority over me or maybe it is better to say they didn’t have an impact because they had authority.  They had an impact, they influenced me because of the example they set and the relationship they built--two seemingly simple concepts that can be so hard to implement.

Why are they hard to implement? Because you can’t do either for a long time unless you are sincere. Leadership isn’t an act or a behavior you take off and on.Leadership qualities aren’t always something you are born with rather it is something that develops over time.    Leadership is something that finds it roots in your beliefs, values, and passions. How do we feel when someone in a leadership role tells us how important professional development is, but never attends training? Or maybe the coach that talks about the importance of listening to your students, but doesn’t listen to what you have to say?

Take a few minutes and reflect—a practice that isn’t used enough-we react, but we don’t reflect, but that is a topic for another post—about who has influenced you in your life, how they influenced you and why. Then reflect whether or not you are following their example in your daily interactions with people.

Why use Influence?

Okay, so a fair question would be, “Why should I bother to try and influence people? I can just tell them what to do and they will fall so in love with the results they will just change.”  This probably won’t happen.  Lasting change doesn’t occur because we are TOLD something. Lasting change happens because we EXPERIENCE something.

The Influencer gets better results and helps others do the same by changing human habits.  There is an adage that says keep doing the same thing; you keep getting the same results. The leaders who understand influence understand this adage.  Systems are made up of people. Want to change the system, focus on changing people’s behaviors/habits.

The Influencer also accepts that you can’t change all of people’s habits, nor do you need to or want to. While we can’t force people to change we can influence the choices they make.  The Sphere of Influence Model below illustrates that we can control very few things in our lives, and most of things we can control have to do with ourselves, not others.  We have a greater ability to influence others.  The greater our understanding of how we can influence and who we want to influence increases not only our ability to do so, but ultimately increases the number of people we influence.




How Can We Influence?

We need to identify the behaviors and habits that are essential to sustaining the change we need.  This, again, calls for reflection and discussion.  For example, if you were trying to increase student achievement and had chosen a good, research-based curriculum, a behavior you would want to reinforce and monitor is fidelity to the program. It is important to pick behaviors that are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck and behaviors that will lead people to the next logical level of growth (behaviors should build upon each other).

For example, Hatties’ Visible Learning identifies key areas “that had greatest effects in student outcomes:”

  • Promoting and participating  in teacher learning and development (d= .91)
  • Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (d= .74)
  • Strategic resourcing (d= .60)
  • Establishing goals and expectations  (d= .54)
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (.49)
  • “Any model of school improvement that is going to be useful to schools must focus explicitly on results, evidence of student learning, and student achievement.”

Quick lesson: d= standard deviation or effect size.  Layman terms, the closer the number is to 1.0 the greater the impact on what is being focused. If the effect size is greater than .4 it’s worth looking at.

Key Factors of Influence:

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships—Michael Fullan, one of my favorite authors, tells us, “You can’t get anywhere without relationships.” When positive relationships are created, people are more likely to listen, to trust and to try.  You can’t influence people who don’t trust you or respect you. Sure, if you have authority you can “bully” them into DOING what you want, but not believing in what they are doing. And it is belief that is one of the pillars that support change.

What is it you want to achieve? If people don’t know what you are trying to do or what you expect of them they can’t follow. Leaders that want to influence need to clear and specific. They need to draw picture or a road map that contains not only a clear idea of the final destination, but milestones along the way.

Monitoring and Measuring are your friends:  If you are not monitoring it, then it probably won’t succeed.  Monitoring provides not only valuable information that can guide people along the way, but also opportunities for celebration when you reach those milestones. 


At the end of the day it is leaders who know how to be influencers who promote challenging goals, and then create environments that are safe enough for people to provide criticism ask question and share information that has an effect on student goals. 

Tips from the Field: ELL Student Badges

Often the best way to look at a situation is to see it through the eyes of the people affected.  It is helpful to walk a mile in somebody’s shoes before offering advice.  When we think that way, it also helps create and maintain good working relationships.

Here is an example of applying this principle to a common circumstance in schools—students who don’t speak English.  We know how we feel when we can’t communicate effectively with our students.  It can be frustrating, but how about the students. Schools can appear big and intimidating to them.  Add to those feeling, the inability to ask for help and it can be pretty scary.

One small tip, that can have a positive impact, comes from Ms. Krauss, a classroom teacher at Della Lamb.  Della Lamb is a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri with a large numbers of English Language Learners from different countries all speaking different languages. They have a great track record.  

Ms. Krauss has 2 students who are brand new to the country. They speak not a word of English! So, for safety’s sake, she put a large name tag on each of them with their name and a comment that says, “I speak Somali.”  If they get separated or lost from the class, any adult can find a Somali translator and help get the child where they need to be.

School Improvement Specialist PJ Toburen commented, “This little act of prevention could prevent a child from being traumatized and builds a sense of safety that eventually affects learning.”  

Three Big Questions for Leaders

There are three basic questions we need to ask ourselves when we want to lead people:

  • Where do we want to lead? (Goals and Objectives)
  • How are we going to get there? (Process and Strategies)
  • How can we tell when we arrived? (Monitoring and Celebrating)

Of course, each of the three questions only begins key conversations. There is a lot of work to fleshing them out and planning for success. For our purposes here, we are just going examine these Big Three.

People often think they know where they want to go—however help them dig a little deeper and they find there is a “disconnect” between where they want to go and what they are doing to get there.  

Years ago, while doing some consulting work for a national organization, I met with some of their board members.  They spoke about their priorities for the coming year (Where they wanted to lead).  Chief among their goals was increasing their national profile through public relations.  During the course of the conversation I posed two questions both related to the “How”:

  • Who is responsible for this initiative?
  • How much is budgeted to support it?

The answer to the first question was “no one” and the answer to the second question was, “There is no budget line for this.” In this example they knew where they wanted to go (increased national profile), they just had not taken the necessary steps of mindful planning to make it a reality (in this case the who and the how).  It is easy to identify a problem and say what you want (and more people than you may realize stop at that point). It is a much more mindful process and effective process, to plan out the steps of how to get there.

Here is an example from one of the schools with which we worked. The principal was concerned about getting data that would guide instruction in the classroom. Her plan was to ask the district for funds to purchase software.  She had worked on a proposal.  Again, two questions were posed:

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • Does this plan accomplish it?

During the course of the discussion the principal realized what she wanted to accomplish was quick access to data, that she was not getting from the district (although the district was collecting the information she wanted).  During the course of the conversation, she also realized that she would have to run the data through the district anyway, so this plan wouldn’t get her what she wanted (quick access).  What she did realize is that she needed a plan for getting quicker access to data from the district and that is what we worked on.

The third question, “How can we tell when we have done it?” is often forgotten. We get so excited and involved with the plan and the work, we forget to check and see if we are on course and accomplishing what we set out to do.   Just as important, if we don’t monitor and check we miss opportunities to celebrate the group’s accomplishments. We miss the opportunities to recognize people’s hard work and individual contributions. All of these are great ways to thank people, reinforce behaviors and build a culture of success.

A good practice is to create a timeline with benchmarks and during your regular meeting make checking on progress toward benchmarks a regular part of the agenda.  This way you can incorporate monitoring and celebrating in one step.

A final note, benchmarks need to be realistic and obtainable (otherwise people can get discouraged and give up).  They also need to be flexible.  Even the best of planners can’t account for developments down the line. A strict, unbending adherence to benchmarks can be debilitating.

So, as you lead remember the Big Three:

  • Where do we want to lead? (Goals and Objectives)
  • How are we going to get there? (Process and Strategies)
  • How can we tell when we arrived? (Monitoring and Celebrating)

Tips from the Field: Student Answering

JP is privileged to work with a wide variety of schools.  Key to our approach is the development of strong and trusting coaching relationships with the staff of our partner schools.  We want everyone comfortable with asking questions and participating in two way discussions.  Recently, Dan Link, School Improvement Specialist, had such a conversation with one of the teachers he is coaching.  The teacher was curious about students raising hands to volunteer answers.

Dan’s response is drawn from the work of Anita Archer’s “Explicit Instruction and Efficient Teaching.”

For individual response questions, the practice of calling on volunteers should be limited, so that all students are engaged in the lesson. A simple guideline can be applied:

  • When the answer comes from information that you (the teacher) has presented or from material that students have read, don’t invite students to volunteer, because all students should be expected to have an answer. You choose.
  • However, if the answer comes from the students’ own experiential backgrounds, request that students volunteer for responding. This practice of only calling on volunteers, when the answer comes from students’ personal background knowledge or experiences, significantly reduces the number of volunteer responses requested in a lesson.

Do you have a strategy you want to share? Let us know.

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