The reflective leader: reflexivity in practice podcast

Ian Robson is a Professor of Strategy at the University of Dundee School of Business, U.K. Here, he talks about ‘reflective practice’; the art of looking back to improve future performance. This includes his study of Scottish Premier League football teams. He investigated how individual professional footballers are mentored, how they're managed, how they're developed as people and as footballers, and what reflective practices permeate the day of a professional, elite footballer. 

It is a natural human characteristic to think about the last time we performed an act, basic or complicated, and consider what we can learn. This is, in very simple terms, what we mean by ‘reflective practice’. Here, we can further see how it applies to strategy, stakeholder management and corporate governance. Ian Robson has held several senior leadership posts in UK universities across a 30-year career, so he speaks as both an academic and a practitioner. 


In this episode:

  • What is reflective practice, and how does it help improve future performance by looking at past experiences?
  • Can reflection be both conscious and subconscious? Why is reflection an essential part of learning?
  • How do elite athletes, specifically footballers, use reflective practice to enhance their performance? 
  • How does reflective practice tie into leadership? What is a leader's role, and why is reflective practice valuable for leaders in making decisions and strategising?
  • What is "adaptive tension," and how does it relate to moments of transition and urgency in various contexts, including sports and organisations?

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The reflective leader: reflexivity in practice

Thomas Felix Creighton (TC): Hello, welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. My name is Thomas and my guest today is Ian Robson, Professor of strategy at the University of Dundee School of Business here in the UK. His main area of academic research concerns strategy, stakeholder management and communitarian models of corporate governance in which he has several publications. Ian has held several senior leadership posts in UK universities across a 30 year career. His book, The Reflective Leader: reflexivity and practice is out now.

Ian Robson (IR): I am currently a professor of strategy and associate dean at the University of Dundee in Scotland. I've lived most of my life in Scotland, and I've traveled around Scotland, working for the University of St. Andrews, University of Aberdeen as University of Abertay, Dundee. So I’ve had a long association with the universities in Scotland, but I originate from Newcastle, as you can probably tell from the accent that says where my heart is.

TC: …and your favorite football team, I believe. 

IR: Well, my favorite football team was doing well as we speak. And that's Newcastle United, a tremendous, tremendous club, tremendous team and a wonderful community of people.

TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I must say you're traveling around the beautiful parts of Scotland, Dundee St. Andrews.

IR: Oh, indeed. I mean, the scenery is fantastic. It's a terrific part of the world, really. And it has everything you know, it has wonderful water, rivers, lochs, hills, mountains, countryside, it's a terrific place, the beaches are superb. And if you just if you're looking for a beautiful place to live and work, then you couldn't beat Scotland. Really?

TC: Could I ask to start off with what is reflective practice?

IR: Yes, reflective practice is the art of looking back in order to improve performance going forward. Simply put, it's in part a natural human characteristic to think about the last time we we did something the last time we performed an act, whether it's basic or complicated, and to consider the learning that occurred in how we did whatever we did in the past. And that's reflective practice. That version of reflective practice is very simplistic. That is a very natural human activity. In fact, it occurs in many parts of nature, not just in human activity, of course, but you know, we see reflective practice is fundamental to learning.

TC: And you mentioned the difference between, say conscious reflection and say subconscious reflection.

IR: Yes, I do think there is a difference. And I do think that subconscious reflection is something we naturally do, especially when we're performing repeated actions, where we're doing things that are very familiar, when we're immersed in parts of our life, parts of our work, there isn't much need to raise reflective practice to the conscious level. Usually, these are very basic things, you know, like preparing food, or eating food or doing, you know, mundane or basic acts in our lives. These things, you know, we often are able to learn without really thinking too much about it. Whereas conscious reflection is something that's much more progressive and developmental, often involving more complicated acts that we perform at work or, or in life generally. And it's, it's really a systematic approach to thinking more deeply about what we've done, how we did it, where the gaps in our performance might have been, and thinking about how we might do better next time. So reflective practice does have an unconscious and conscious dimension. It's the conscious dimensions that I focused on in this book.

TC: I used to work for someone who always asked after a big event, you know, what went well? What went not so well, what we do differently next time as a very simple way to get into those questions. Where can we go from there?

IR: Reflective Practice has often been aligned directly to problem solving. And when you look at any standards, problem solving model, in effect, you know, any model of learning problem solving, innovation, creativity, many many models in management, and outside of the management field, actually involve a cyclical process. And sometimes it might involve more than one cycle, as in Argyris’ double loop learning, but we often start with the definition of a problem and then work through the cycle to define the problem. Consider potential solutions to the problem, implement those solutions, and then reflect back on whether that solution was effective in relation to the problem and then adjust for the next cycle. So perhaps implemented slightly different solution or reframe your understanding of the problem. So that's that system of reflection is one that is very strong, even in today's practice of, of developing decision makers, managers and leaders. And one of the issues that that occurs to me, certainly through writing the book is that not everything is a problem. There are many phenomena that you still want to manage, or, or work through or work with, that you wouldn't necessarily need to frame as a problem. So this model of problem solving and and cyclical behavior is very useful for some things in business, but but not for everything. Many things in our lives and in business, are unsolvable the complex wicked problems, perhaps, and you have to live with them. So finding ways of working with phenomena in with challenges with characteristics with uncertainty, with threats, these are these are other ways of looking at things that we do in work.

TC: Absolutely, I mean, this, when I was doing it, it was with a very strict focus on, you know, big drives to extend customer contracts to sign new customer contacts. And that was that was it, that was the very practical drive.

IR: Yeah, and I think I think in business today, you know, it's so complex, we have multi multiple layers, within every business of phenomena, of pressure of tension, things that force companies to change on a on a minute by minute basis, in many instances, not just on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. And so I think that the need for more reflection, and then more complicated forms of reflection, is, is ever more prevalent, because we see reflection as a way in which you can capture that learning, and in which you can start to develop your own practice in relation to these dynamics. And that's what that's what the book is about. The book is really about introducing practicing leaders and managers, to methods of, of reflecting much more deeply on the work that they do on a daily basis, and how they can learn from that and improve their practice in relation to the challenges that they have.

TC: And you worked closely with a number of, let's say, practitioners in order to achieve this and or to get some ideas?

IR: Well I did. And the, I mean, the roots for the book really are in my teacher training from many years ago when we were introduced to Donald Schön’s work on the reflective practitioner and the reflective practicum. And, you know, it was it was introduced to us as students of pedagogy and andragogy, that everybody really learns through elements of reflection, it's, it's just part of human nature, but that, you know, this is a ubiquitous concept. It covers every aspect of life and every aspect of work. And it was a surprise to me that the complexities of of doing anything, you know, managing a household, bringing up children, managing your garden, running an allotment all these things are very complicated if you start to disaggregate the fundamental elements of them, and then work out where reflection occurs in dealing with every element. There's a lot of reflection in a lot of our lives. So from that point, I was always really interested in looking at reflection in professional life and in practice, and this book gave me the opportunity to do that. And in doing that, the first step was actually to go and talk with elite football coaches. So I talked to the head coaches of several Scottish Premier League football teams. And I asked questions about football education, where reflections useful, how reflection occurs, what technologies are used to support reflection, how individual professional footballers are mentored, how they're managed, how they're developed as people and as footballers, and what reflective practices permeate the day of a professional, elite footballer. This is someone who's earning, you know, huge amounts of money, who is on the world stage who is in media spotlight. And, you know, it was amazing to see just how reflection is incorporated in every facet of a footballers life, at that point, when they become 16/17. These people are then introduced to a highly professionalised educative culture. In that culture, they are trained to look at their own performance, the performance of the team around them, and the performance of their opponents in great detail. And once they do become a fully fledged senior professionals, their daily routine is to look very carefully at every aspect of their lives. And that includes nutrition, so that they reach their physical peak, that advice is digital, it's in the form of an app that players access. The app will tell these players, which professional staff they need to have a meeting with, who they need to talk to. And then there will be learning points, and there'll be points where they have to analyse the gaps. Did you do everything? Yes or no? What did you not do? What what gaps you need to fill? How is your performance against your target? What is the gap? So thinking about gaps, thinking about the model of performance of nutrition, all of them elicit a gap of some sort. And those gaps are where the reflection takes place. So a footballer on a daily basis, frequently every day must reflect across a whole range of performance metrics on how they've done in achieving their target. So that involves that reflection from the from the individuals themselves, in understanding what they need to do during the day. And looking at what happens when during the day. In looking at the metrics they're given in relation to their targets at every day, during the day. So the level of reflection is incredible. It's it's huge. They have to reflect constantly. And it's things that are slightly less measurable, like attitude, as head coaches also pick up on so how do they look in training? Do they look happy? Do they look positive? these other aspects of reflection come into play. 

The reason for focusing on elite football prior to writing the book was to get an insight into this acutely pressurised environment to see how reflection manifests in these sorts of contexts. And it gave me a tremendous insight as to what reflection is, although reflection, as I say, is not a word that's used at all, in these settings. Sometimes education is used, sometimes the word development is used. But really, it's the reflective practice that brings about the huge improvements in the performance of of elite footballers, cricketers, and so on. Now, we add layers to that reflective practice when we start looking at reflexivity, because reflexivity would be to bring in a higher level of learning and reflective requirement. And that might might be to bring in things like different models of patterns of play, different views on positional play different views on coaching techniques, it could be to do with with psychological modeling, and theories about how motivation occurs, how we can improve concentration, how we can be more reflective. So there are many layers and possibilities beyond reflection, that bring in external frameworks, external concepts, practices, ideas, technologies, to enable development and learning in these various contexts. So my work with the head coaches of Scottish football clubs was was tremendous, really insightful. But it did identify this gap, that knowing more about reflection, and understanding what reflexivity can be in helping to reflect on reflection, and helping to get outside of these inherence potential. But personal biases, one element that's really important here, in terms of the consideration of bias. But now, many years ago, a psychologist wrote about fundamental attribution error, that fundamental attribution error is something that is a very common problem in today's society, we’re very, very quick to attribute causality from one element of life, to something that we've observed happening in the world. And one of the best examples you can give actually is a football manager. And I'll give you the example of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Now, we all know that he's a phenomenal individual it's said that he's a tremendously nice, personable character. And that, you know, he contributes a lot to charity and society, so he's a good person. Now, if you're a Manchester United fan, you might think that he was almost entirely responsible for the great success that the club achieved when he was manager for for approximately 17 years. There were many cups the championships, it was a golden era for Manchester United. And the tendency is for us all to attribute that success to Sir Alec himself. Now, that would be a mistake. And to be very simplistic to do that. Now, undoubtedly he is a phenomenal manager was a phenomenal manager and in that era, but there are many more variables in, in professional life than just one person and just the leader. I mean, the other variables could well have been to do with the resources, he had to invest in players in coaching developing players, the resources he had behind the scenes to manage various aspects of the club. It could be down to the fact that he had several world class leaders in his teams for many, many years, I’m thinking, Roy Keane, Mark Hughes, you know, Steve Bruce, they had many players who were at the very top of their game who played very, very well for Manchester United for many years. And there was also an ethos, a culture, a mindset of success of excellence, that I think Sir Alec probably had to have a hand in in terms of inculcating and developing that mindset. However, we will never know just exactly what his relationship or his influence was over all those variables, all those elements. At the same time, you have to look at the opposition, there wasn't really for most of that time, any more than one or perhaps two true competitors to Manchester United in the domestic sea. And that's just tells you that this causality issue needs much more reflection, much more analysis, much more thought, to understand how these variables work together. And that is partially what the book is about. It's trying to tease out those dimensions and dynamics of real life to understand causality a little better, or help you understand the context far better to enable us to pick out the variables that are more important than others, and to focus on the things that really lead to better performance than others. And that's what this book is about. It's about understanding that context.

TC: It's a much more holistic idea than simply we did x, and it gave us y 

IR: It is, I mean, you know, you have to admit that on many occasions, that might well be true, it might well be quite easy to understand causality. It's just that when we when we look at leadership, leadership is a fairly nebulous concept in the sense that anyone can be a leader, it can be taught, some people do have natural characteristics and abilities, that help them to stand out as people who talk sense, speak their mind, to have a strong character are extroverts So and are very influential. But generally, leaders can come in all shapes and sizes. And my basic definition of a leader would be an individual who can see a better future for an organisation for a team for a group, and can persuade other people around them. That that vision of the of a better future is achievable, is valid, is relevant, and is something that we should work towards. So we get that interaction between someone who was a leader, and people who want to follow that leader. You can't be a leader without having followers. And this is why when we talk about examples in public life, Winston Churchill, Nicola Sturgeon, Margaret Thatcher, some of their qualities would have been to persuade their group or their community or their team. So if that's what a leader is, then perhaps it's easier to see. Because that sort of view of a leader is still fairly woolly, it's still quite difficult to grasp, you still can't be certain of what a political leader in particular is doing to persuade hundreds, thousands and then millions of people to follow them into this vision of the future. It's difficult to tease out the variables and to isolate them and to identify them, then to make some sort of judgments on their reports, with a manager or with management's, you know, we're looking at much more sort of measurable activities, those still with an element of subjectivity. So managers, of course, are more responsible for operational activities making things happen. And so I think with measures, it's slightly easier to understand causality or to identify causal relationships between variables and outcomes, whereas with leaders, it's much more subjective and nebulous. So while both activities require reflection, the focus of the book is on leadership because that's where reflection and reflexivity can offer more value and offer more positive impact on on effectiveness.

TC: I'm interested in your definition of a leader is quite relational. And we tend to focus on the leader in the relationship but relationships are necessarily at least two way, if not multi way. So I wonder, is there something to be gained from looking at the followers and their part of the relationship?

IR: Thank you. Right. I think I think followership is certainly a large area of, of research and leadership field. And we've already begun to look at leader and follower relationships from many perspectives, and one that really interests me, is the idea of toxic leadership, and how how toxicity can still command a following. In, in an organisation, whether that's through, you know, threats and fear, or some other reason, we're not clear, but I do remember reading Northouse, his book, in which he started to talk in more detail about toxicity. And the the toxic leader can be someone who is, you know, an extremely unlikable individual, someone who is extremely powerful, whose character you're not attracted to, whose ideas you don't agree with. But there may be something coercive, there may be something oppressive, there may be an organisational context, which is constricting, which doesn't allow you as an employee to have a voice and so followership is forced. And that's that's the other side of this positive developmental, ideal and reflective practice is, is that, you know, we're often in positions where we're oppressed. And as a result, we've become incredibly negative about our work. And reflection isn't something that we are really bothered about doing because you get worn down by this sort of environment. I've been in these environments, in my own work in London, it's very unpleasant. So we have to remember that it's a very rich tapestry out there, you know, the possibilities are incredibly broad. And you know, these sorts of ideas are undoubtedly helpful, but have to be set within a context of practice. And in a context of relationship between a leader and the community that persons set up to lead.

TC: Yes, I was talking to a psychologist recently who's saying like, if things are just a little bit bad, it's very easy, just let them continue, because you can put up with it. So what you really want is a disaster, because then you'll improve, and you'll get to a better place sooner.

IR: There's a phrase I came, came across years ago, which a first read in a paper by a Californian Professor Brian McKelvey and in it's this phrase, adaptive tension. And he talks about this adaptive tension as an understanding that one there is some causal phenomena that you can observe in real life that you can see is creating a tension that you need to respond to. Now on a football pitch, that could be it could be a towering tackle, in midfield, that could be a decision made by a referee to award you a free kick or award free kick against you. It could be a moment of brilliance and creativity by by a player where he creates a bit of space or uses extreme pace to get away from a defender. But these are potential moments of transitions can also be a penalty miss or penalty save or corner or some sort of, of set play moments in a football match. And it's the same in cricket when you know, when you get a wicket, or when someone you know, plays a tremendous stroke to you know, well six over the boundary or whatever. It's the same in every sport, netball, basketball, hockey, every sport has these moments of transition. So organisational life is punctuated by moments of transition, it could be the report that tells you that a new piece of legislation is coming out. It could be a change in in tax regulations. It could be an opportunity in international trade. It might be to do with work practices, hybridity, it could be a new technology that allows us to work from home, it could be anything that creates a moment that you really need to respond to, that gives a sense of urgency to an organisation. 

TC: So yeah I'm really struck because in sports really interesting, because in a sense, it's like a repeatable experiment. Right? You have the same the same game, different players, different circumstances. Whereas a lot of the VUCA world things we're dealing with, you know, responding to a pandemic or particular business opportunities, not repeatable it gets into the idea of competence, right? So I hesitate to blow my own trumpet. I'm very competent at tying my shoelaces because I do it all the time. Responding to the COVID 19 pandemic. I had to do it once.

IR: That's right except that, you know, tying your shoelaces is a good example of where reflection you might think reflection is never needed to tie shoelaces, it's unconscious, however, you like me will have bought that pair of shoes where the laces don't quite tighten when you tie them. 

TC: Yes.

IR: That's a moment of reflection, isn't it, you know, you still, when you buy a new pair of shoes, there is a level of uncertainty about whether those laces are going to need a double knot or a single knot. So even with really mundane issues and example, you find an element of reflection still required. Now, obviously, the pandemic was was a huge catastrophe for the world. So that that is, you know, it's a multi dimensional, very complex moments, which requires you know a reflection from everybody at every level. So, you know, the public inquiry into how the UK government handled the pandemic, for example, that that would look at a myriad of levels, the myriad of services, of companies and, that would be a huge piece of work. But obviously, you know, as a leader, you can only really reflect on the things you can reflect on the things that you can directly influence or you're directly part of. And I think that that's, you know, that's another thing to bear in mind, when we talk about reflection, you can't reflect on a great deal outside of your own experiences really, you can comment and you can, you can, you can offer reflections, of course you can. But in order to improve your own performance, which is what this is about, or the performance of your company, or team or department, then reflection has a different framing in terms of my work.

TC: And ultimately, it is getting to a practical result and observable result.

IR: Or it could be a feeling, it doesn't have to be it doesn't have to be observable, it could be an emotion result, you might just feel better, at the end of the day, you know isn’t not more important sometimes?

TC: Okay, I do have one last question, which is a very out there question. Can have some interesting answers, which is that you know, your academic study the reflective leader, I'm wondering if you ever see a really good example of this in general fiction, like whether it's a TV show, a movie a book, like, have you ever seen a really good example where somebody's like, or does creative does rarely seem to get it?

IR: But I mean, I think the most obvious answer to that, for me is in Succession. 

TC: Oh, right. 

IR: I mean Brian Cox, of course, is a Dundonian, he was the Chancellor of the University at the University of Dundee for for a three year period and made a huge impact on the, on the city on the university on the region. He's a wonderful champion of, of that part of the world. And to see him in a global blockbuster like Succession playing, the role of, of Logan Roy was was fantastic. But, you know, when he when he plays that role, you'll see him saying nothing, in many scenes of each episode of Succession. And it's quite clear that Logan Roy is a character as a very, very deep reflector on the dynamics of what is happening before his very eyes in terms of his family, his confidants, his senior executives, the companies he's trying to buy out or compete with, there's a level of reflection that's presented in that program. That is phenomenal, actually. And it's in those scenes where he's just sitting with a glass of whiskey or something. And he's clearly just mulling things over. Now. That's an example of reflection in in in a nonreal scenario, but it does actually, it does actually show some similarities or parallels with real life? Of course it does, because that's what we do, you know, we sit with a cup of tea, and and we reflect and think. So this is something that we do every day, all the time. So, you know, art and life are quite close together in reflection as far as I can see.

TC: Thank you very much for sharing all about your study. It is very, very interesting. I think a lot of people find it very helpful

IR: Been an absolute pleasure.

TC: Thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about our guests and for transcripts of today's episode, please see our show notes on our website. I would like to thank Fiona Allison and Daniel Ridge for their help today's episode. And Alex Jungius from This is Distorted. You've been listening to the Emerald podcast series.