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Are you a reflective or reflexive leader?

"Reflexive" and "reflective" are two ends of a continuum. Where do you fall on this leadership spectrum?

5 min read


React or reflect?


Tom is a mid-level manager in a technology firm. He’s risen quickly because of the volume of work he’s consistently been able to manage.

He explains his success like this: “Given the pace of business today, you can’t overthink things. You’ve got to diagnose what’s before you, apply the appropriate fix and move on to the next. After doing this for a while, gratefully a sense of intuition has taken over, allowing me to make quick business of the decisions before me.”

Contrast this with Eva, an engineering supervisor with an aerospace company. She’s received accolades over the years for her consistently delivering projects on time and on budget. But, she’s also developed a reputation for supporting the development of others. She explains, “There’s not a template for leadership. In my business, each situation and each person is unique. I’m at my best when I bring fresh eyes and genuine curiosity to the moment. This provides the data I need to make effective decisions — for myself, my people and the business.

What’s the difference?

These stories offer insight into two contrasting approaches to leadership that can be found in the workplace. Tom is a “reflexive” leader. He’s been there and done that, and he’s internalized certain algorithms for reacting to situations. He’s cultivated habits and standard responses that can be implemented expeditiously, turning many problems and issues over to his internal automatic pilot.

Eva takes another approach to leadership. Despite having considerable experience and an internalized sense of what works in typical situations, she appears to have turned off her automatic pilot and is consciously choosing in-the-moment responses based upon the conditions before her. She is a “reflective” leader.

Now, let’s be clear about a couple of things. “Reflexive” and “reflective” are two ends of a continuum. Most leaders likely fall somewhere between the two. And to simply survive the countless decisions that must be made each day, effective leaders move along the continuum. Think about it. Bringing deep attention and thought to all of the routine tasks that consume our days would be utterly exhausting. Booting up the computer deserves and demands an autopilot response.

Rethinking reflexes

But, leadership is not a routine task and, as such, it benefits from more reflective responses. In fact, operating reflexively can be a liability in today’s disruptive workplace. Conditions are changing quickly. Customer keep elevating their expectations. Competition is emerging from unexpected corners. Technological shifts continue to accelerate. Even the face of the workforce is transforming. with greater diversity not just relative to gender, age and ethnicity, but also with regard to the nature of the employment relationship (with gig-workers, contractors and part-timers growing in numbers and influence.) Reflexes based upon yesterday’s data and conditions don’t take into considerations how things are and who people are today.

Additionally, leadership reflexes have grown out of personal contexts that may have changed. For instance, it’s not uncommon for high-performing individual contributors to internalize the value they bring to creating deliverables. Yet, how many new supervisors suffer when the reflex to want to do the work themselves undermines their evolving responsibilities and their ability to get work done through others. Yesterday’s reflexes may simply not serve today’s role or business conditions.

Cultivating greater reflection

As a result, leaders may find value in exploring the other side of the continuum and consciously inviting greater reflection into their leadership approaches. The good news is that there are countless small actions that have the potential to lead to significant behavioral shifts. Consider:

  • Pausing and taking a breath before responding or acting.
  • Bringing a curious mind, even to routine situations.
  • Asking “what if” questions to better understand opportunities and possibilities.
  • Challenging yourself when automatic pilot response quickly surface.
  • Allowing some thinking time before offering answers or direction.

In many cases, our fast-paced, priority-packed environment has favored reflexive leadership and the speed at which it operates. Increasingly, however, there’s an appreciation that, as Marshall Goldsmith famously writes, “what got you here won’t get you there.” Greater reflective leadership may be the way forward, along with the argument for going a little slower now so we can go much faster in the future.


Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want,” You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at

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