Master the Craft of Leadership: Try This Reflective Practice

You’re a Genius: Using Reflective Practice to Master the Craft of Leadership

By Steven S Taylor

If you want to be good at any art form, you have to master the craft. Artists spend years mastering their craft and then their whole lives work­ing on that craft. The same is true for professional athletes. If you want to practice the art of leadership really well, you have to master the craft of leadership. What is the craft of leadership? The simple answer is that in the same way that woodworking is the craft of working with wood in order to make things and glass blowing is the craft of working with glass to make things, leadership is the craft of working with other humans in order to do something.

While we have probably been trained in our primary craft, whether that is in medicine, the arts, engineering, or some other discipline, the craft of interacting with others, the craft of working together is usually taken for granted.  We manage to muddle through, sometimes with pretty good results, sometimes with not very good results, but we are not masters because we have not pursued mastery of the craft of interacting with others.

How do you craft your interactions with others?

The first issue is having something to work with. Memory is a tricky thing and it is extremely helpful to create a representation of particular events with which you can work. Creating an object in the world to look at, offers you some distance and the possibility of seeing yourself behave. It would be great if we all had someone taking a video of us all the time and we could just rewind and replay the video, but that’s not the case for most of us. Audio recordings can be helpful as well, but most of us don’t record ourselves in any form other than our own memory. So the first step is to dump that memory into a two-column case format.

The Two-Column Case

The two-column case is a simple format in which what was actually said is listed in the right hand column and the case writer includes what they were thinking and feeling which wasn’t said, in the left hand column. There is usually a short introduction to the two-column case which provides just enough context for other readers to make sense of the dialogue. Of course, our memory is usually flawed and the two-column case may not be what was actually said. But that’s not a problem because our memory of an interaction usually tells us an awful lot about ourselves and that’s what we are looking to explore. Here is a seemingly almost trivial example of a two-column case:

Intro I am at home on a weekday evening in January of 2004. The phone rings. I answer it.
What I thought and felt: What was said:

Who? …
What happened to hello? …

So rude … so screw you …


Me: Hello.

Caller: Where are you and your ever-loving watching the game?

Me: We’re not sure.

 Two-column case example  [1] The two-column case comes from the Action Science (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith 1985) tradition.

I wrote this simple case and used it as an example with my MBA students a couple of weeks after it happened. It may seem like a trivial interaction, and in many ways it is. However, it is also a problematic interaction because of the emotional intensity, the anger you can see being expressed in the left-hand column. I don’t want to be angry at the caller because the caller is a person whom I interact with often and it’s a relationship I care about. The caller is my mother-in-law.

There are a variety of things we can see in this example two-column case that are worth noting. The first is that we don’t need a very long interaction to see what is going on. The heart of the problematic interaction often expresses itself in just a couple of lines. The second is that there is a pretty big disconnect between the left-hand column and the right-hand column. Like most people, I do not say much of what I am thinking and feeling. We don’t know the tone of what I said, but even though I have studied acting, I am confident that some of what I was feeling, leaked into the tone of how I said what I said. I read my answer, “We’re not sure,” as being somewhat cold, and overly short. I suspect my mother-in-law heard it that way as well.

Often simply seeing an interaction written down as a two-column case provides enough distance to start to see how our own behavior is contributing to the problematic nature of the situation. Often simply seeing the two-column case allows us to empathize with the other a little more than we were doing in the moment and see how their behavior was in some way reasonable. But sometimes, particularly when you are having a strong emotional reaction, seeing the two-column case isn’t enough and you need to go farther. You need to analyze the interaction.

You're a genius

This post is an excerpt from You’re a Genius: Using Reflective Practice to Master the Craft of Leadership,  a “how-to” book for learning the techniques of reflective prac­tice in the action science and action inquiry traditions.

About Steven S. Taylor

Steve Taylor is a professor of leadership and creativity and the head of entrepreneurship, marketing, and management at the WPI Foisie Business School. His research has been published in academic journals including Organization Studies, Leadership Quarterly, Leadership, Academy of Management Learning and Education, and Journal of Management Studies. Taylor is the author of the books Leadership Craft, Leadership Art; You’re a Genius: Using Reflective Practice to Master the Craft of Leadership; and Staging organization: plays as critical commentaries on workplace life. He is also the founding editor of the journal Organizational Aesthetics

Read an excerpt from  Leadership Craft, Leadership Art 

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