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Reflective Leadership in Global Education

Tuesday, October 24, 2017  
Posted by: Pamela Roy, PhD
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By: Pamela Roy, PhD, Manager of Learning & Assessment - Diversity Abroad

As international educators, our work often involves engaging with students, professional colleagues, and communities abroad; yet our reach is broader and extends to governments, policymakers, NGOs, the private sector, corporations, and other stakeholders invested in the global education and cultural exchange. Given that international educators have the capacity to make a difference globally, it is imperative that we are fully present, emotionally engaged, caring and empathetic – characteristics of reflective leadership - so that the future leaders we inspire can continue to make a profound impact globally, impact that is grounded in social justice and equality for all.  

Defining Reflective Leadership

Derived from the Latin term reflectere, reflection means “to bend back”; the act of reflection is therefore crucial to global education because it serves as the bridge between experience and learning (Reed & Koliba, 2003). When reflection is coupled with emotional intelligence – the ability to understand one’s self and other people, display self-control and self-confidence to respond to others appropriately – we have the potential to lead global sustainable change (please see Burgan & Burgan, 2012).  In our everyday lives, and most certainly in the work we do with students, we must be more patient, observant, and introspective, creative, and take risks, as well as have the ability to take in information, connect the dots and glean eye-opening insights.

Another key tenet of reflective leadership is empathy. Over the past two decades, Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Goleman has written extensively on authenticity and empathy, and the connection between empathy and leadership. He suggests that effective leaders possess all three types of empathy – cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathetic concern. How can we help students harness their skills to be emphathetic leaders? In what ways can we be better attuned to how the other person feels and what they might be thinking? Is it possible to empathize with our colleagues and be moved to help them? As we create rapport with our global colleagues, being in tune with yourself and in tune with what’s happening, suggests Goleman, will strengthen the relationship. 

Reflective Leadership in Action

How can we incorporate reflective leadership into program implementation? The following provides an example of reflective leadership in action. In June 2017, I co-led Diversity Abroad’s Global Institute for Inclusive Leadership, an intensive, 8-day interactive workshop designed for international education, student affairs, education abroad, faculty development, and diversity and social justice program professionals who were interested in gaining skills and resources and building networks to better support their global education and diversity-related work. The inaugural Institute was held in Cape Town, South Africa and was comprised of full-time professionals from 11 different universities in the US. Self-reflection was a core component of preparing for participation in the Institute; self and group reflection was fundamental to the experience on the ground in South Africa and critical towards learning and growing both personally and professionally upon participant’s re-entry into the US.  

On day seven of the Institute, I led a workshop on Reflective Leadership that was quite transformative for participants. The workshop was designed to provide participants with an opportunity to map their leadership, using the Johari window as a framework to better understand: a) what we know about our leadership skills and abilities, b) what we don’t know about ourselves, c) what other’s don’t know about our leadership, and d) what we and others don’t know about our skills and abilities. The workshop was purposefully designed to be held at an off-site location with access to comfort foods, a beachfront view, and plenty of space and time for participants to journal in private and dialogue with each other confidentially. The guided activities revealed deep insights for participants about their respective leadership styles and how these styles vary in professional and personal settings. Participants explored what it means to do soul work with purpose, the importance of balancing work with competing life priorities, and much more. Facilitating the workshop led to my own set of discoveries about the characteristics that I value in a workplace, why ethics and authenticity are core values that guide my professional praxis and that through shared vulnerability we can foster deep, meaningful and lifelong connections with our colleagues – an unexpected result of leading the Institute.  

GIIL Cohort, Camps Bay, South Africa, June 2017 after the Reflective Leadership workshop

GIIL Cohort, Camps Bay, South Africa, June 2017 after the Reflective Leadership workshop

Advancing Diversity & Inclusive Excellence in Global Education through Reflective Leadership

As international educators, we are faced with an increasingly complex, multicultural and diverse higher education environment; the focus on the value of reflective capacity may help us to meet the challenge of our changing times (Roberts, 2008). Indeed, the ability to reflect must be cultivated over time, unless we are actively engaged in the practice of reflection through our own personal habits or within the context of our work. As international educators, we are often involved in facilitating or leading high impact practices that involve direct student engagement or that have implications for student success. In other words, we are facilitators of the student learning process and have the capacity to encourage future leaders to look inwardly to clarify their personal values, as well as outwardly to understand how they can connect to the larger whole (Huber, 2002). The importance of developing as reflective leaders is therefore paramount if we aim to encourage and facilitate deep learning and meaningful opportunities for students, including students who study abroad. Helping students, our leaders of the future, engage in reflection-in-action (thinking on one’s feet) as well as reflection-on-action (thinking upon completion of a project or particular activity), and helping them to question assumptions, and readjust their behaviors and attitudes remains crucial to their success as global citizens (Roberts, 2008; Schon, 1983). 


Burgan, D. S. & Burgan, S. C. (2012). Understanding emotional intelligence for project management practitioners. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2012—North America, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Goleman, D. (2017). Culture of Empathy Builder. Accessed online

Huber, N. (2002). Approaching leadership education in the new millennium.

Journal of Leadership Education, 1(1), 25-34.

Reed, J., & Koliba, C. (2003). Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont. Available online.

Roberts, C. (2008). Developing Future Leaders: The Role of Reflection in the Classroom. Journal of Leadership Education 7(1), 116-130.

Schon, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.