3x5 Leadership_Leader Reflection Series

Thus far, this series has analyzed reflection at the individual level and how it helps us learn as leaders to improve our leadership. We conclude the series, however, looking at reflection at the organizational level and how a team can collectively reflect. Reflecting at the organizational level becomes a driving force that leads to collective institutional learning. Just like our own individual learning through reflection makes us better leaders, reflecting as a group or team can make us more effective as an organization.

Below are a few recommended organizational reflective exercises to help your team collectively “connect the dots” and figure out what to with those new connections.

The Keys to Organizational Reflection: Questions and Space

In trying to lead group reflection sessions in my organizations over the last few years, I’ve come to find one primary key to success for any session: the less that I talk as the leader, the better the discussion is; better discussions lead to more quality learning.

In trying to lead effective organizational reflective events, my job as the leader is not to talk, instruct, or make any decision. My job is to ask simple, targeted questions and to create the space for reflection. Many of the activities you see below require the leader to do little more than to ask questions. As the leader, I really cannot tell my people what they should be learning; to make it mean something to them, they have to discover it themselves. Additionally, in the busyness of work, the biggest challenge often is creating the space – both time and physical boundaries – to allow our people to pause, truly think about what they are learning, and making sense of their thoughts and how to apply them.

When planning organizational reflective activities, focus on securing the time (formally on the organizational calendar so it is unable to be usurped) and physical space (a location away from interruptions and distractions), and developing the right questions to ask based on your learning goals for your people.

After Action Reviews (AARs)

An AAR is a simple, but powerful group reflection method to rapidly assess performance following a project or event. Conducting an AAR at the end of a training event, mission, or group project can help you and your team learn from your efforts and how to improve next time; one major objective of AARs is to determine what worked and what didn’t. An AAR session requires little more than a set of questions, a whiteboard to record reflections, and space (time and physical) to pause and talk.

One good AAR model is offered by Daniel Coyle in his book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. His research recommends a five-question model:

  1. What were our intended results?
  2. What were our actual results?
  3. What caused our results?
  4. What will we do the same next time?
  5. What will we do differently?

There is a large amount of “art” to conducting AARs well. You need to find the best way to set conditions for shared group vulnerability (people being willing to say that “I failed at this”) while not pointing fingers and being hostile. Ultimately, one key to AAR success that I have found over the years is the need to assign responsibility for “what will we do differently in the future.” The group may come up with the best ideas for improved performance in the future, but if no one is tagged with the responsibility to ensure it is done, the idea will be lost as soon as the AAR session is over.

Though AARs are common to the military, the “art” of doing them well times time, experience, and research. I am always striving to improve how I facilitate AARs myself. Check out a few additional (non-military) AAR resources HERE and HERE. Finally, I recommend you read The Culture Code, if you haven’t yet, as it addresses the shared vulnerability necessary for successful AARs. In the book, Daniel Coyle states, “The goal of an AAR is not to excavate truth for truth’s sake, or to assign credit and blame, but rather to build a shared mental model that can be applied for future missions… With an AAR, …group members have to combine discipline with openness.”

Group Reflection Discussions

When we think of leader professional development (LPD) sessions, especially in the military, we naturally envision our boss or a selected team member lecturing the group on a topic of choice so we all learn something new and have an elevated baseline of tacit knowledge across the team in that area. To improve the team, bringing new knowledge to its members is absolutely necessary, I do not argue that. However, most LPD lectures that span 60-90 minutes often leave its audience unengaged and uninspired.

My favorite LPD session model is facilitating a group reflective discussion where, like I stated earlier in this post, I merely ask questions and encourage the group to produce their own learning and answers. I’ve found that these sessions are immensely valuable because the audience is engaged the entire time and they determine what they learned and what is important (I didn’t force it on them), which leads them to value the reflective thoughts more. The best way to explain this group reflection style is by providing two examples that I have recently led with my United States Military Academy (USMA) Cadets.

Example 1: At the beginning of the academic year, my Cadet company received our new group of 32 freshmen who just completed their six-week Cadet Basic Training over the summer. To that point, these young adults had spent only six total weeks in the Army learning our organizational norms, Army standards and traditions, and the basics of military training and tactical tasks. This was their first immersion into Army leadership, so upon receiving our freshman, I thought it important to pause and allow these emerging leaders to reflect on what they’ve learned about leadership to this point. I reserved an academic room away from the rest of our company and allocated two hours for our LPD. For this session, I asked one simple question: “in our six weeks in the Army so far, what are the ten most important things that we, as a whole group, have learned about leadership?” Then, I sat in the back and allowed the group to go to work; I provided two large white boards and markers to enable their group work. It took the group a full 77 minutes to produce their list of 10 learned leadership principles! It was fascinating to watch the group dynamics at work (no assigned structure, no formal leader over the group, etc.) and to see their end result. I continue to reference this list each time I engage our freshman to see what’s changed and what this still means to us.

Example 2: Our USMA Cadet company is Cadet-led, meaning that we have our own formal Cadet chain of command from company commander down to members of squad (freshmen). We change out the chain of command every semester to maximize Cadets’ ability to experience different leadership positions. We aim to have the Cadet COC lead and run itself, where I serve more of a teacher, advisor, and coach role. The Cadets create their own organizational visions, values, goals, and run themselves day-to-day. As a teacher and coach, I organize one structured reflection event in the middle of each semester. I break it into two separate events, one for the seniors and juniors, and one for the sophomores and freshmen. I ask three questions over the course of the session (listed below). The session follows the format of small group discussions, so I break the large group (about 60 Cadets) into three small groups. I ask the question, the small groups break up to discuss, we come back together as a large group, and the three small group representatives share their thoughts (supported by whiteboard notes). Then, I ask the next question. The three questions I ask:

  • What is the state of our company? What are the best parts about our company? What are the aspects that need the most improvement?
  • Take a look at our current company vision, values, and goals (I provide them on a slide for everyone to see). What do these mean to us now? How are we doing accomplishing our vision and goals? What do we need to update (add, remove, or change)?
  • What do we need to do next to get after our vision and goals based on these updates? List up to 10 things that our company needs to work on or start doing.

Quick note: I’ve found that to maximize the impact of sessions like these, I need to capture the data from the discussions and provide it to my people afterward so that all of the great ideas don’t stay in the room once we leave. So, at the end of group reflective sessions, I take pictures of everything they write up on the boards or that they share in the discussion. I then consolidate the data into a single, organized Word or PowerPoint document and provide it to everyone afterward, usually via email.

Peer Coaching

An often untapped organizational learning resource are our peers. They may not have more experience than us, but they do have a different perspective, which can help shed some new light or different ways of thinking for what we are experiencing and learning.

I wrote about peer coaching in a previous blog post, which you can check out HERE.

I re-address peer coaching as an organizational reflection method because leaders can leverage this tool by making it a formal program within their team. Similar to reflective discussion LPDs above, leaders can create opportunities, through space and targeted questions, for their team members to learn from one another. Consider a session where you have a set of questions and you pair team mates up to discuss. Consider orienting discussions toward solving systems, group dynamic, or individual challenges. The program can span multiple sessions to allow peer coaches to work together over time and follow through with problem solving execution.

Building an Organizational “Growth Mindset”

Effectively learning from reflection requires a key assumption: our people showcase a willingness to learn. This willingness to learn and grow, often called having a “growth mindset,” is understanding that intelligence and leadership ability is not fixed, but can be gained, and they see learning as valuable in itself.

We can’t force or demand our people to have a growth mindset. We need to inspire it. You can learn more about growth mindset and some ways to help inspire it across your team HERE. Though this is not a deliberate reflection activity, growing your organization’s capacity and commitment to learning will improve the value of your structured reflective events.

Role Modeling

At the end of the day, showcasing your commitment to reflection and the value it is adding to your leadership is often the best method to enrich others’ reflection, both at the individual and organizational level. I claimed in the Leaders are Readers series that the best way to inspire others to read for personal development is to show your people that you’re reading (carry your book around) and enthusiastically share what you are learning from your reading. This principle applies to reflection in the same way; showing your people how you reflect and sharing the valuable growth that is coming from it can improve this learning method’s quality across the team.


My aim for this series was to help turn the concept of reflection from a weird, nebulous concept that many of us don’t understand into concrete behaviors that we can routinely enact to learn and grow. Much of this series is based on years of trial-and-error. Improving and refining your reflection takes time as you figure out how you best learn and “connect the dots.” You will not reflect how I best reflect, your organization will not reflect the same way that mine does.

I encourage you to begin testing out methods to find what works best for you and your team. Start small, with one behavior a few minutes a day or week, and expand over time as you make these habits. Good luck and happy reflection! “Preparation and reflection must be the bookends of every experience we encounter as well as ones we offer our subordinates.”

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