Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about reflexive leadership

Published on 30/09/2019

Every leader wants to become the most effective they can be, and leaders of changemaking organizations carry a special responsibility to “be the change.” But there’s always a gap between how you see yourself and how others see and experience you. Closing that gap – enabling your “inner leader” to match your “outer leader” – requires a reflexive leadership approach. It helps expand your consciousness of who you are and how you show up in the work you do, as well as how you fit in a broader context of systemic realities that lie outside of you but deeply impact you and your communities every day. In this session, Paulette Senior provides key insights on reflexive leadership as a lifelong effort to do the hard work of changemaking, starting with yourself and moving outward to your organization and the broader society itself.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Stop going in circles
  2. Circle back
  3. Draw a new circle
  4. Explore what’s in the circle
  5. Complete the circle


  1. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
  2. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey
  3. Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, by Kim Scott
  4. Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations, by Tina Lopes and Barb Thomas
  5. The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, by Dolly Chugh


Full session transcript

Just a bit of a spoiler alert before I get going – just by being here, you’re already following one of the suggestions that I’m going to share. We’ll talk more about that later, of course, but you can give yourselves a pat on the back, or a fist pump, to the person next to you, in the meantime, as you are about to hear me talk for the next half hour, so go ahead and pat someone on the back, give them a fist pump, get to know them. You can do it to yourselves, if you can’t do it to someone else. You may want to get their permission. All right, great, glad you have done that.

You all came here today to hear about five good ideas about reflexive leadership, and how to use reflexive leadership to navigate change in your organizations. If that’s not why you came, you’re probably in the wrong section. What do I mean by reflexive leadership? That’s a great question. Researchers describe it as, “The ambition to critically and systematically examine “how our assumptions, ideas, and words influence “us as people and as leaders.” It’s also the will to consider whether alternative assumptions, ideas, and words, will make sense. For me personally, it’s a journey, one of examining or expanding my consciousness about who I am and how I show up in the work that I do.

There’s a quote by the late American journalist, Sydney J. Harris, that captures the challenge of this approach. He says, “The three hardest tasks in the world “are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, “but moral acts: “to return love for hate, “to include the excluded, and to say, ‘I was wrong.'” So how do we become more reflexive in practice, and how can we use this practice in our organizations?

As I was thinking through this talk and developing it with a colleague of mine, I decided that being a reflexive leader would mean not getting all jargony on you, and using all kinds of buzzwords. Instead, I’ve decided to talk mostly about circles. Besides, who doesn’t like a good circle? They work for us in so many good ways. Donuts are circles, pies are circles, pizzas are circles! All kinds of good, maybe not so healthy stuff, are circles. Circles are the shapes that can actually roll up, help put us in motion, and take us places. You’ll see that we’ll still get there, despite the fact that it’s circles, and at the same point.

Let’s start this conversation by thinking about a time in your career, or your life, where you felt like you were going in circles, or spinning your wheels. That’s another way to tap into that feeling of being stuck. For me, it was when I was in middle management at a previous organization. At the time, I was working in housing, and as you know, we face a dire, dire housing crisis here in Toronto and throughout the country. And my job at the time involved providing supportive housing for diverse women, women who’ve faced multiple challenges and various forms of discrimination. Women who had been homeless, or were at the risk of homelessness. The essence of my work was to support and maintain housing for quote unquote, “The hardest to house women,” and women with children.

On a daily basis, I worked to break through systemic barriers, while trying to meet the immediate and challenging needs of residents who often felt and expressed frustrations about their life circumstances. And they didn’t really hesitate to let me know how they felt about it, and I don’t think that this is a forum that I can actually repeat some of the things they told me. But it was noble, intense, and much-needed work. But I didn’t know if I was making a difference. I felt stuck, personally and professionally. I began to believe that this was it, that making a difference was not possible. I felt like I was a landlord, although I was, but performing all the good and bad duties that came with that role, and that this had become my career, far from the impact that I wanted to make. To me, the inspiration of gender equality for women and girls is not even present, let alone imaginable. I was spinning my wheels. I was putting more and more time, work, and energy into staying in exactly the same place. I didn’t realize it right away, but my efforts were essentially maintaining the status quo.

That’s the first idea. When we get to a point where we’re going in circles or spinning our wheels, stopping and becoming reflexive enough will help to recognize the pattern and cycle you’re caught in. It’s an opportunity to explore how we might be unwittingly or unintentionally maintaining a status quo, particularly if our goal is to make a difference, and learn and grow in the process. We’ve got to figure out what we can truly do differently. That’s easier said than done, because many of us think we just need to work longer, harder, in the same ways, to achieve the change we seek. But often, we actually have to shift our energy into disrupting the moving circle itself, and prevent it from becoming a vicious cycle.

On a personal level, reflexive leadership, to me, means checking in regularly to see where I’m at, and whether the path I’m on, the actions, my behaviours, my interactions I engage in are in sync with my expressed values and goals. At times, we need to be patient, take a long view, and remind ourselves that it won’t be a straight line to get there, and that it’s okay to make detours and to pivot. Every one of us, and our organizations, face obstacles in truly becoming the change we want to see.

When I hit this point in the midst of my career, I didn’t know at the time that it would help me face challenges in future leadership positions, including the one I hold currently at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. One of my first jobs as CEO was recognizing where we were spinning our wheels at the foundation, and unwittingly maintaining unhelpful, possibly unhelpful status quos. Being reflexive in that context meant staying connected to the ambitious goals and objectives needed for true social change. These are the goals that are rooted in the articulated needs of the communities that you serve. Staff and stakeholders should be part of the reevaluation process so that they can fully buy in and visualize themselves as part of that change. Of course, it’s also about using concrete metrics, results, and feedback to measure what’s actually working. Then, it’s about staying honest and changing what isn’t working.

The book, “Radical Candor,” which is one of the resources listed for this event, argues that if we truly care about the people we work with, we will run into situations where we need to challenge them directly, and give clear and direct feedback that will improve their performances, and that of the organization. For many of us, this feels unnatural, and perhaps downright mean, because we learned early on, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, right? But if we dwell and dwell too much on what the book calls ruinous empathy, ruinous empathy, we let our colleagues and our organizations continue to spin their wheels, rather than helping them understand that change is needed.

One way for leaders to start implementing this practice is to solicit feedback and show that we’re willing to follow it. Yup. We’ve got to show we can actually #TakeItLikeABoss. Author Kim Scott suggests that leaders ask staff members questions like, “Is there anything that I can do or stop doing “to make it easier for you to work with me?” These are the kinds of conversations that show colleagues they’re not the only ones being challenged to change. It’s only by challenging ourselves and those around us that we’re able to stop spinning our wheels.

Once we’ve recognized that we’re stuck, how do we move forward? In my situation, I didn’t move forward right away. I had to stop and circle back to see how I even got there. Yes, my job was tough, but I had to shift from blaming those circumstances to asking myself some tough questions.

The book “Difficult Conversations” points out that to move beyond conflict situations, we should let go of who’s to blame, and instead ask, what’s contributing to the situation? In a nutshell, it’s the idea that focusing on blame is about judging, while focusing on contribution systems, which we’re all a part of, leads to greater understanding and positive action. So, what was I doing to contribute to the barriers I was facing? Was I too focused on the idea of people being hard to house, when I should have been more focused on the housing system that contributes to their precarity?

As I thought about this, I realized, I wasn’t contributing the same love to my work that I once had. I was projecting my feeling of failure into my work and environment, and it was holding me back. But more importantly, it was having a negative impact on those around me, including the residents we’re housing. Even if I wanted to try a different role, I wasn’t going to get there if I kept doing what I was doing. The difficult truth was that change had to start with my own contribution, that it is indeed a privilege to have the opportunity to provide much-needed housing to women and children who need it most. It is an honor to serve. And, is there a more noble and just cause? So this is a second idea, if not “lesson,” that I learned on the job.

You’ve got to circle back before you can move forward. At the foundation, this process happens in many ways. Once we recognized where we were spinning our own wheels, we needed a plan to start moving forward. In fact, we needed a three-year strategic plan. We started the process by circling back. We pulled together stakeholders and donors and staff, and asked ourselves many difficult questions, such as, “Why did the foundation start?, and “were we still serving its original goals?”, “How could we change our approach “to create more change for women and girls?”, and “What did we need to contribute “to truly advance gender equality for all women?”

It took a while, but it became clear how we were holding our own selves back, and the plan would help us hold ourselves more accountable in the future. I also find myself doing this circling back on a daily basis in many ways. For me, this involves taking 100% ownership and responsibility for my role in any situation. What am I bringing to it? How is it being received, is it positive or is it negative? Why did that meeting go well, and why didn’t it?

I find, for myself, that meditation for a minute, 10, or 30 minutes is an effective tool for consciously unearthing and resetting my intentions as I shift through different contexts. On some days, I may replace or combine it with a walk, but like you, we’re all works in process, and I’m on an endless path of learning and discovering.

So at the beginning [of this presentation], I said you should all pat each other on the back, or fist pump, for following one of the five ideas. Just by taking the time to be here, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to actually circle back, to check in with yourself about your personal and organizational goals. We’re all caught up in our daily deadlines and projects, so I know it’s not easy to step back and reflect with openness and with honesty. So this time, (and with their consent, because you may not have gotten it the last time), pat your neighbour on the back again, or give them a fist pump. And it’s great that they’re here.

Once you’ve spent some time circling back, you can plan how to move forward, but it can still be tricky to know how to focus our energy. One tool that you can use on both a personal and professional level is to draw a new circle. In my circumstance, I was able to move forward because I focused on changing the things within my control. In my day-to-day work, I couldn’t snap my fingers and change the extensive waiting list of clients or improve the housing policy. But I could support advocacy efforts to raise awareness and push for change. More importantly, I had the power to alter and transform my relationship with residents and my colleagues. That’s exactly what I did, and the results were truly incredible, and I knew, without a doubt, that I was making an important and critical difference, each and every day.

Stephen Covey, you’ve all heard of him, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” promotes a helpful tool that involves drawing two circles. The outer circle is a circle of concern. So in that, you or your team can write down the big picture issues you’re concerned about, perhaps it’s how you’ll be impacted by the upcoming political election, or economic change. Inside that, you draw a smaller circle which is your circle of influence. Reflecting on the things you’re concerned about, you can write down the factors over which you have some influence or control. For example, perhaps you can influence a government bureaucrat behind a policy that’s created an obstacle for the people you serve. And if you’re feeling stuck and ineffective in your role, perhaps it’s a conversation you need to have with someone of influence, who can make the difference you seek in your career to help you move forward.

At the foundation, based on the information we gathered in the strategic planning process, we knew that we could focus more of our power and energy on advocacy. The foundation was launched almost 30 years ago to raise money that would fund programs for women and girls who were facing barriers, including violence and poverty. While we know these programs have changed lives, going forward, we also want to challenge the systemic policies and practices around violence and poverty. That led us to a bolder vision of realizing gender equity for all women and girls in Canada. So advocacy became an important addition to our circle of influence, and to our strategic plan. We knew this advocacy would need to be grounded in the lived experiences of marginalized women, and the work of grassroots organizations that serve them, what they need, and the concerns and barriers they articulate. It would also mean engaging the public in these advocacy efforts, and showing our audiences how they can play a powerful advocacy role to signing letters and petitions on specific issues, marching, for example. So that’s the idea, draw new circles to help distinguish what’s within your control, so that you can target your power and energy toward that.

Once we’re focused on that circle of influence, being reflexive means continuing to examine what’s inside it for each of us. This is idea four, explore what’s in that circle. On the personal level, the things and people we can influence are tied to our identity and our social location, and to the barriers and privileges that we hold. We have to acknowledge that things will look different based on gender, race, language, culture, ability, sexuality, age, and other critical factors. When we are more reflexive and conscious of our own biases, we can be more authentic leaders. We’re better able to take in other perspectives from a problem solving stance.

In the book, “The Person You Mean to Be: “How Good People Fight Bias,” author Dolly Chugh points out that most of us come into situations feeling that we are good people with the best intentions. Yet, we still manage to offend others, and to be offended by others. Am I right? If we’re all good people, why do we regularly come into conflict with each other? Chugh differentiates between being a believer, which is someone who, for example, believes in gender and racial equality, and being a builder, which is someone who recognizes that advancing gender and racial equity is a continuous process of learning and action.

So rather than viewing ourselves as good people, she argues that we should view ourselves as goodish people, who are always trying to understand our own biases, and get past them. We also have to let go of the shame that may come with that. It takes courage and energy to commit to this path of lifelong transformative growth. On an organizational level, we can set the stage for this reflexive learning by creating a sense of psychological safety. This means creating an environment where people feel that it’s okay for them to speak up, to say they need help, and to admit mistakes. Research has shown that these kinds of teams learn more and perform better than those in environments where the feeling of psychological safety is low. Creating a sense of psychological safety doesn’t mean that we can’t give constructive criticism. But once we’ve created a safe environment where everyone, including the CEO, is working to improve, we’re still all moving in the right direction, together. Now that we’ve examined what’s inside the circle, we can complete the circle by bringing others in, because we don’t succeed individually, we succeed by working together.

This is idea five. As a leader, I know I didn’t get to where I am without the help of supporters and allies. As I move forward, I work to bring people with me, to be a mentor myself, and to be transparent and inclusive, and to continue my own professional development. When possible, I bring people with me to events I’m invited to, because I know others who aren’t in my position may benefit from the opportunity or have the chance to be seen and heard. It’s about conscious gratitude, giving credit, and giving back. It’s about recognizing that simple, daily processes like how we communicate at meetings can be improved and be more inclusive.

In the book, “Dancing on Live Embers,” there’s some key guidance for really looking at our workplace dynamics and communication. “Look for who communicates what, “who’s supposed to listen, where the silences are, “who gets what information, “and whose information is valued.” Seizing the opportunity here and lift others is an important part of the reflexive leadership journey. So how do we complete the circle on an organizational level? At the foundation, we’re guided by the words of the late, great, Rosemary Brown, one of our founding mothers, and the first black woman to be elected in political office in Canada. Rosemary said, “Until all of us have made it, “none of us have made it.”

We know that as we continue to move forward, we have to ask ourselves whether our work is inclusive of all women. Whether it reaches those facing the highest barriers in the communities that need it most. Although many of the programs that we fund already serve women and girls in indigenous communities, we know we can go farther. Today, indigenous women, including Inuit women, experience the highest rates of violence, poverty, and poor health, than any other population in Canada. Sexism, racism, and colonialism continue to erode their connections to community and sense of identity.

That’s part of the reason why we’re developing a new Northern strategy, and as part of our commitment to the process of reconciliation, the foundation’s developing a model for funding programs, services, and networks in the North that is informed by people in the North. Our role is to empower, collaborate with, and connect organizations in these communities, rather than parachuting in with our own approach. We’re focused on building the capacity of grassroots organizations to serve their communities, sharing what we learn from them, and connecting it with working toward systemic change. This is one of the ways we’re working to complete our circle, because we know that true gender equity must, at a bare minimum, include all women and girls.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Paulette Senior

CEO and President, Canadian Women’s Foundation

Paulette Senior has devoted her life and career to breaking down systemic barriers and building up diverse women and girls. Her personal experience immigrating to Canada from Jamaica as a young girl ignited her interest in social justice and helped make her the dynamic, grounded leader she is today.

Paulette’s career began in social services in some of Toronto’s most underserved neighbourhoods. She witnessed the need for systemic change and learned the power of putting the voices of women and equity-seeking communities first. She became known for her excellence in shelter, employment, and housing service provision, as well as for her intersectional approach to advocacy. She has earned numerous awards and has become one of the most respected women leaders in Canada.

In 2016, Paulette joined the Canadian Women’s Foundation as President and CEO after a decade serving as CEO of YWCA Canada. She is a sought-after thought-leader on numerous issues including gender equity and gender-based violence; women’s poverty and the wage gap; girls’ empowerment; and leadership. Her focus at the Foundation is to bolster an inclusive national movement for all women, girls, and communities across Canada.