Writing and Leadership: Applying Reflective Writing to Leading Change

Most of us know that writing is a technology invented several millennia ago to aid memory, but few consider how much writing — especially reflective writing — can aid creative and critical thinking, particularly when leading organizational change. For anyone who is about to embark on organizational change, has the responsibility to lead it or needs to help others make sense of it, reflective writing can enhance and deepen your leadership practice.

The proceeding is a follow-up to “Writing and Leadership: Reflecting on the Page,” which appeared on Ideas to Action in September 2014.  

If you need some prompts to get started on writing to reflect about leading change, here are some ideas. Pick one, try it, and see what happens. Adopting an experimental or playful attitude toward your writing, thinking and reflecting will help.

  • Figure out the whole story: Someone once said, “When you see something you don’t understand, you probably don’t know the whole story.” Reflective writing can help you imagine and fill in missing data in your understanding of a person, situation or problem. Ask yourself, what story helps this make sense? Consider whether others would tell the story differently.
  • Try and test new ways of thinking: In the safety of your journal pages, you can try out and test new ideas without fear of the social consequences. This can be liberating and help you become more imaginative and innovative in a situation in which you feel stuck. Use a lead-in, such as “What if?” to get yourself going.
  • Vent, then problem-solve: Journal writing is a great way to dump anxiety, frustration and anger. Not only do you not have to deal with anyone’s reactions, but the process can be enormously cleansing, clearing space for more effective problem solving. It may help to separate the two tasks. Vent first, take a break, then come back to write in a more constructive, problem-solving frame of mind.
  • Rehearse or review difficult conversations: Sometimes change-oriented conversations can happen so quickly that they deserve more thought than there is time for in the moment. When rehearsing, write out how you would like to open a conversation, then reflect on how that might be received. Modify your approach if necessary to fit the audience or situation. When reviewing, try to recount the actual words that were used. Then go back and think about what each party heard when those words were spoken. What helped or hindered real communication?
  • Keep records: Your journal may be used to keep notes on strategic conversations, log key change indicators and report on experiments with change. Later you can analyze your findings and look for patterns.
  • Explore personal change: There is hardly an organizational change that doesn’t challenge you to also change professionally and/or personally in some way. Use the journal to set personal change goals, break them down into daily activities and then track your ability to implement the changes.
  • Capture that thought: If you are like many people, ideas occur to you at almost any time of the day, often while repeating some physical task — taking a shower, driving, exercising. If you are one of those middle-of-the-night geniuses, keep your journal by your bedside so you can jot down ideas and get back to sleep.
  • List listening questions: Use your journal to collect questions that you hear. Or pose questions you want to ask others. Later review them and ask, “What seem to be the underlying concerns behind these questions?” “What do I need to do in order to answer these questions?”[1]
  • Imagine the possibilities: Use different symbol systems to imagine new ideas. Brainstorm a list, write a compelling change story, sketch a process-improvement diagram, draw a picture of the new product or try some “back of the envelope” calculations.
  • Do a SWOT analysis: Analyzing strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats can be a helpful method for making decisions and developing a message about change. Oftentimes items fit in more than one column. Use your journal to construct arguments and decide which items fit in which columns or think about how you have to refine your ideas to differentiate shades of gray.
  • Analyze the situation and key stakeholders: What’s the history of the situation? What’s your diagnosis about what’s going on? How do you sort symptoms from root causes? How would others define the situation? Where are stakeholders’ opinions aligned or at odds? How can you overcome resistance? What language is most likely to produce the change you seek?
  • Practice self-observation: Use your writing to observe your own behavior. Examine your reactions to a key event. How did others respond to you? Chances are you are getting a lot of feedback from other people and your environment all the time, but you may benefit from being more mindful of it. Use your writing as a way to be more present in the moment during conflict or when coaching others.[2]
  • Persuade yourself first: Before you can persuade others, sometimes you have to persuade yourself so you are clear about your objectives and the stakes involved. Tell yourself a story that you can believe in or make an argument that compels you so you can have the confidence to be a credible spokesperson for change.
  • Play devil’s advocate: To debug your own thinking or the thinking of others, use your writing time to poke holes in an argument. Or use the devil’s advocate to introduce a healthy bit of skepticism or doubt into your thought process. Clear yourself of a rigid mindset by arguing yourself into a new perspective.
  • Clarify your objectives: What’s reasonable? In the abstract, you’d naturally want everyone to be an ambassador or cheerleader of change. But if the change is unpleasant (and most changes are on some level), what do you say? For example, during layoffs, you can’t necessarily promise that everyone will keep their jobs, but you still need to say something. Perhaps you can let everyone know that you’ll keep them informed as you learn of new information, or that you promise to be fair and fight for everyone, given the constraints in which you will need to operate.
  • Anticipate conflict and negotiations: Identify each party’s position on an issue. Then explore through your writing each party’s underlying interests. See if you can imagine a way to break a stalemate between positions by inventing new solutions that might lead to compromise or a win-win agreement.
  • Frame messages: Reread your entries and highlight phrases and words that you want to use or avoid. Distill and synthesize a core message into a sound bite that you’ll repeat throughout the change process. Try different framing techniques. For example, is this change better represented as a “vision,” a “crisis,” a “transformation” or a “natural evolution”?[3]
  • Tell stories: Recall examples and stories from your experience and extract leadership lessons. Spend some time generating alternative ways of expressing ideas. To add interest, use concrete and vivid language. To make the messaging credible, think about how you might set an example or follow up the message with a tangible action that signals your sincere commitment to change.[4]
  • Outline next steps: Use the journal to list, draw or write scenarios about next steps. Use reflective time to ask questions about your first draft of next steps — are they solving the right problem, what’s missing or needs to be taken away, how about the order? Then think about the constituencies whose help you need — what will they embrace or resist?
  • Contemplate your message platform: You will need to be your own PR consultant. Suppose you’ve heard or come up with a persuasive or motivating message: How can you develop it into a platform that you will refer to repeatedly? Which events might best communicate and personalize the message for those who most need to hear it? How can you keep the message fresh even if it starts to sound old to you?[5]

This post is excerpted from Darden Professor Lili Powell’s technical note Writing to Reflect: Mindful Leadership in the Face of Change (Darden Business Publishing). Please see its companion piece, “Writing and Leadership: Reflecting on the Page,” for a summary of the benefits of reflective writing.

Professor Powell teaches in the Executive Education program Leading Mindfully, which draws from neuroscience, psychology, management research, yoga and acting methods to teach skillful self-management so that participants may lead others more effectively.


[1] See Michael Marquardt, Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

[2] For more on self-observation and feedback, see Doug Silsbee, Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders through Mind, Body, and Heart (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008) and Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (New York: Hyperion, 2007).

[3] For more on framing, see Gail Fairhurst and Robert Sarr, The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

[4] For more on storytelling, see Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (New York: Gotham Books, 2003); Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling (New York: Basic Books, 2006); and Stephen Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

[5] For more on message platform, see Terry Pearce, Leading Out Loud: Inspiring Change through Authentic Communication (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

About the Faculty

Lili Powell

Powell’s current academic interests are mindful communication and leadership presence. She also has expertise in leadership and management communication, corporate reputation and diversity.

Powell has authored numerous cases and is co-author of Women in Business: The Changing Face of Leadership. She is currently working on a new book — Present: Leadership... Learn More