We lead to change the world. This is a simple but yet profound statement related to students’ capacity to influence the world around them through the exercise of leadership. Leadership provides an opportunity to change the world by promoting and embracing the underlying values of social justice. This is based upon a collective vision of fostering a global community that promotes love, justice, equity, and compassion. Dr. Stephen Brookfield’s book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Leader, provides educators with a blueprint on how to incorporate critical reflection into our instruction. In applying Brookfield’s theoretical framework in my coursework, I have discovered new ways to prepare my students to begin leading from the inside out.
Critical reflection is an integral component of preparing students to assume leadership roles and engage in social justice advocacy. The following paragraphs will provide instructional tools for teaching principles of critical reflection. The journey begins with looking introspectively since critical reflection is about understanding your core values. In my leadership courses, the first question that I raise is: what are your long held beliefs about leadership? For many, the narrative begins with leadership being hierarchical, positional, or endowed by title. It may also be based upon a desire to obtain power over others in comparison to exercising collective power with others. This dialogue begins the process of hunting hegemonic assumptions. Hegemony is described as a “process whereby ideas, structures, and actions come to be seen by the majority of people as wholly natural, preordained, and working for their own good” Antonio Gramsci (1978). Hegemonic assumptions are assumptions that we think are in our own best interests but that actually work against us in the long run, according to Brookfield. This keeps our imagination bound in the terms of: this is the way things are versus this is the way things could be. I also ask my students the following questions: What is “good” leadership? What are the characteristics of effective leadership? This creates an opportunity to have a dialogue about how leadership has been shaped by one’s experiences (i.e. modeling, perceptions, media, myths)
Next, we begin to consider how hegemony impacts our understanding of leadership. We explore notions like:
- Leaders are born vs. leaders are raised (This explores the evolution of leadership theoretical frameworks from the idea of a few “great men” born to lead to the contemporary analysis of leadership which focuses on practical skills development.)
- Efficiency by managing projects vs. Efficiency by managing relationships (This examines the nature of leadership from a relational lens by placing people at the center of effective leadership.)
- I/me vs. we/us (This promotes collective engagement and participatory leadership. In the social justice context, this is a manifestation of people power which can be leveraged to advance a shared vision of justice.)
We then embark on the next phase of the journey by deconstructing the myths and ideas which limit our imagination of the possibilities for leading social change. This is when we put the mirror to ourselves by examining our personal lens shaped by one’s experiences. Brookfield provides an instructional tool to aid in the critical reflection process, the structured critical conversation, which provides each individual (students and professor, alike) with an opportunity to share a personal story of experiencing a challenge. Examples may include a workplace conflict, personal challenge, or ethical dilemma. During this exercise, their peers serves as detectives who help to explore the storyteller’s hidden assumptions, identify assumptions in the storyteller’s descriptions, and provide alternative interpretations of the experience. As a result, the storyteller moves from a myopic view of one’s lived experience to the multidimensional lenses of seeing through the eyes of others. This provides for a transformative leadership development moment of considering alternative interpretations of the unfolding events and offering new ways to navigate the terrain of decision-making/analysis. Not only does the storyteller emerge with new tools for being critically reflective, his/her peers (who serve as detectives) are also transformed in this process. They develop reflective listening skills and creative problem solving skills which are essential attributes of a critically reflective leader.
In closing, critical reflection is also often a skipped step in the process of inquiry. When this occurs, students then miss the opportunity to examine their beliefs, assumptions, and myths about leadership and social justice advocacy. Therefore, they miss key opportunities of learning and growth. Brookfield warns “[leading] innocently means thinking that we’re always understanding exactly what it is that we’re doing and what effect we’re having.” Alternatively, critical reflection provides students with the opportunity to lead intentionally by taking strategic action in promoting social justice.
Why is critical reflection important?
- Take informed actions- being intentional
- Understand diverse practices- seeing through the eyes of others
- Examine your reality- understanding why we believe what we believe
- Leader as learner- gaining new insights
- Increase democratic trust- supporting partnerships and collaboration
- Balance of power- acknowledge assumptions
Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Leader
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is an attorney, educator, writer and community advocate. Dr. Tyner is a member of the Clinical Law Faculty in the University of St. Thomas Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services, Community Justice Project (CJP) Legal Clinic. She is also the director of diversity and chair of the Multicultural Affairs Committee. She is the author of the forthcoming book, The Lawyer as Leader: How to Use Your Legal Skills to Promote Social Change
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