Why Leaders Need Reflective Writing

Close-up of hand writing with pencil in a spiral-bound journal.

I spend much of my work week reacting: responding to questions, solving problems, mediating disputes, seeking answers, tackling some goals, setting others aside, listening actively, practicing patience, adding to my to-do list. Most of this I do reflexively, without deep consideration. The result is that my brain is full of moments–unfinished conversations, looming deadlines, unwritten emails, overfull agendas, and unrealistic timetables. It can feel out of control, and that feeling manifests as physical and mental stress. 

Leaders of all types — from those who head organizations, lead teams, and manage staff to those who plan programs, teach classes, and parent children — sometimes feel overwhelmed by the cacophony of other people’s needs and expectations. During the work week, everything moves so quickly, there’s rarely time to consider the impact of decisions and actions and to connect our daily tasks to our “why,” the priorities and values that guide our efforts.

So what does it take for leaders to quiet this noise and gather themselves and their thoughts so they can move from scattered and reactive to coherent and planful?

Reflective writing. 

For those of you who dislike writing, hear me out. 

Writing about your experiences turns down the volume and creates a quiet space where you can reconnect to your “why.” In their book Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change, Danelle Stevens and Joanne Cooper remind us that humans develop through an ongoing process of meaning-making. Making sense of our experiences happens through conversations with others and with ourselves. They argue that reflective writing “can be an important tool in facilitating conversations with the self and furthers a deeper understanding of our values and beliefs” (42). Journals, diaries, daybooks, logs, or lists are spaces for self-talk. And it’s in these spaces that we can observe and make sense of our worlds. 

“Writing about your experiences turns down the volume and creates a quiet space where you can reconnect to your ‘why.'”

Beyond reconnecting us to our values and beliefs, reflective writing also: 

Improves Focus and Clarity

Productivity guru David Allen famously said that “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” By writing everything down, we clear our minds of the clutter. A clear mind is more available for creativity and positivity, more open to possibilities. In his memoir Greenlights, actor and lifelong journal-keeper Matthew McConaughey says “I never wrote things down to remember; I always wrote things down so I could forget.” Forgetting–or setting aside–the things that don’t matter makes it possible for us to attend to the things that do. 

Records Your Development Over Time 

Habitual journalers provide a gift to their future selves: a chronicle of their experiences. Fellow trekkies might remember Jean Luc Picard’s Captain’s log–a record of encounters, ambiguity, adversity, and resolution. Your log will reveal evolving goals, beliefs, behaviors, failures, successes, and more. This record can be tapped when working through challenges (“How did I handle this last time?”) and when there is a need for perspective. A review of your reflections can also reveal patterns of behavior, knowledge that can prompt personal change.  

Helps You Prime for Spontaneity

In The Art of Framing, Gail Fairhurst explains that leaders must stay in control of the vision they frame for others, even within spontaneous communication. They do this by developing mental models, structured ideas that ground their words: “If you take the time to consciously and periodically think through your mental models as a leader, you are priming your unconscious to select and interpret new information using the models as a reference point.” Reflective writing creates private space for leaders to revisit and rehearse their mental models. 

“Reflective writing creates private space for leaders to revisit and rehearse their mental models.”

Reflective writing can take many forms. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be writing. Visual journaling has a loyal following among artists and doodlers. Bullet journals combine to-do lists and reflective writing, using icons and other visuals as tools for focus. Apps like Day One allow you to record images and metadata (like weather and location), in addition to words. But the physicality and measured pace of the old-fashioned diary has significant advantages when the goal is to slow down and spend time in quiet conversation with yourself. 

I think it’s time for me to give reflective writing a try. How about you?

This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article on May 27, 2021. It was inspired by the W&M Washington Center’s course Modern Leadership: Reflections and Tools for the Values-Based Leader.

Statement of Solidarity

The William & Mary Writing Resources Center condemns racial-based violence and prejudice and stands in solidarity with the Black community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and protesters fighting against racial injustice all over the world. We mourn the loss of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless others who have lost their lives due to senseless acts of violence and police brutality.

As writing center consultants, we work with Black students and value their voices and perspectives. As individuals, we want to share with you some of what we have read by Black authors and how these writings have been influential in our understanding of race and power dynamics and/or how they give voice to Black experiences. Listed below are several literary recommendations by Black authors from some of our consultants. May these literary recommendations serve as a conversation starter and form of education in your own life.

Black Literature Recommendations:

Sabrien recommends:
masters-tools_lordeThe Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde’s book is a collection of critical essays which bring women of color into discussions of feminism and the LGBTQ+ community and highlights how their stories are often ignored or not given voice. Lorde points out that visibility and rooting out self-hatred caused by racism, homophobia, and sexism is a key contribution to moving forward. Lorde brings intersectional identity to the center of the discussion, and argues that true change comes from understanding and accepting our differences rather than ignoring them. Lorde puts the responsibility for change on individuals—it is not the job of women of color to educate others, because the energy it takes to do so is distracting from the task of real change. It is our job to educate ourselves about the experiences of others. What we choose to do with that knowledge is critical to moving forward in change.

 Grace T. recommends:
beloved_morrisonBeloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved captures the life of a woman, Sethe, who escapes slavery with her children to Ohio. It follows Sethe and her daughter Denver as they grapple with the traumas of the past. When a mysterious girl, Beloved, appears at their house, Sethe and Denver must both confront their strongest fears to move forward into the future. The novel combines history with fantasy to give readers insights into the emotional and physical tolls slavery had on people. Beloved was incredibly powerful and opened my eyes to not only the trauma caused by slavery, but also to the horrors that enslaved women faced both before and after escaping.

Isabel recommends:
the-odyssey_walcottThe Odyssey by Derek Walcott

This play is a retelling of the classic Homeric epic by Saint-Lucian poet and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Walcott has created a compelling and beautiful reimagination of this Western classic using Caribbean culture and themes to tell a story similar to the titular poem but imbued with a different significance. This play discusses colonialism and survival. Walcott’s genius makes this play a joy to read and also encourages readers to confront how they perceive race in storytelling, Caribbean culture, and literary theories of intertextuality (discussed in Irene Martyniuk’s piece on the play “Playing with Europe: Derek Walcott’s Retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey”). This play taught me more about Caribbean culture and reminded me how much Western culture influences the fiction I, and most others educated in Western institutions, consume.

Mary recommends:
just-mercy_stevensonJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

In 2017, my English teacher assigned Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The book outlines the stories of many wrongfully accused prisoners on death row but mainly focuses on the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man accused of murder. Through McMillian’s story, Just Mercy reveals the human impact of the inequities of the criminal justice system. The horrifying injustices committed against Black Americans no longer remain abstractions to readers who are beneficiaries of systemic racism.

Before reading this book, I sheepishly believed I was pretty knowledgeable. I thought knowing these problems existed and being against them was enough. Black Americans, though, do not get to leave this conversation in the classroom. Ultimately, I had an incomplete understanding of my own relationship to these systems. Just Mercy challenged me to face my white privilege. I found myself angry that I wasn’t already outraged. I had unknowingly participated in systems which promote everything I vehemently condemn. I was angry that individuals have to fight so long and so hard against systems meant to defeat them. I also felt guilty: I had the privilege to forget, when it is my responsibility to remember and fight against it.

This fight is not about me and other White Americans but about what can be done to stand in solidarity with the Black community. I learned the true power of knowledge and compassion. I will never understand what it feels like to be a Black American, but I can listen and learn. I can ask questions, educate myself, actively challenge my own biases, and have difficult conversations. Ultimately, at the root of injustice is a sickening absence of empathy. One quote from Just Mercy has always stuck with me, as a reminder: “embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and…when you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Aria recommends:
black-fem-thoughtBlack Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins

One of the most eye-opening books I have read as a Black woman in America is Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought serves as an intersectional, synthetic approach to giving voice to Black women, which in turn aims to empower them as agents of knowledge. Black women in America face a unique form of oppression due to the racism, sexism, and classism they have faced for centuries. By placing Black women’s experiences at the center of analysis, Black women are empowered to take control of their own own epistemology which for centuries was placed in a eurocentric, masculinist worldview. I believe this is a book people should read to broaden their thinking and to gain a better understanding of the epistemology that surrounds Black feminist thought to help propel social change in America.

Sydney recommends:
dawn_butlerDawn by Octavia E. Butler

Hundreds of years after a nuclear war on Earth, Lilith Iyapo wakes up in isolation on an Oankali spacecraft. She is held there while her captors, the Oankali, learn everything they can about the human race. Lilith learns she will lead other humans as they prepare to return to Earth, but what she doesn’t know is that, against her will, she will also bear children for the Oankali. The Oankali survive by reproducing with other species, so these children will not be human… not entirely.

Dawn features a complex black female protagonist, which is a rarity in science fiction. I think I could stop the recommendation there by acknowledging the importance of diversifying all genres of literature and by recognizing this novel as an excellent work of science fiction, not as one aimed at teaching readers about race. This nove, however, undeniably demonstrates the oppression that black women face at the intersection of race and gender. Lilith is discriminated against both for being black and for being a woman, and she complicates stereotypes on both ends. I highly recommend this novel — both for those who already read science fiction, and for those who don’t.

Additional Recommended Readings:


Sally Hemmings by Barbara Chase-Riboud
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line by Charles Chesnutt
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates


A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Fences by August Wilson
Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks
Dutchman & the Slave by Amiri Baraka
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange


Celebrating Black History Month, a collection from The Poetry Foundation


“In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” by Alice Walker
“The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones from The New York Times’ The 1619 Project
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Just Walk on By” by Brent Staples
“I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Writing Across the Disciplines

booksAs a business major, I didn’t think writing would come up that often in my major-specific classwork. Instead, I had pictured lots of class participation, teamwork, and presentations (all of which do occur). But I’ve had to write a few papers every semester as well, to analyze different industries and companies. And I’ve learned that even presentations are a form of communication which can be prepared in advance and outlined to ensure clarity. Writing is how we convey that we’ve done the research, formulated ideas, and created a game plan or strategy on how to improve the situation we face.

It makes sense why writing would be prominent in classes that don’t seem literature focused. Writing allows the transfer of knowledge and it’s essentially your thoughts and opinions captured on a page. No matter what you’re studying, writing can help exemplify your point and help others know that you understand the subject. Communication becomes tangible in the written form.

One of the most important skills I’ve developed during my time at college has definitely been my writing. Whether I’m taking a class within an English/writing focused department or not, written communication comes up regardless. My friends in science-based majors comb through research papers and academic journals to help spread knowledge acquired from experiments and studies. My friends majoring in public policy and government are active readers and writers, for the purpose of disseminating information and keeping up with the news through journalism.

One way to develop this skill is to not overthink it. At the writing center, one of the biggest things we encourage is simply engaging with the content – this most importantly involves talking about it. Once you start vocalizing your ideas, it becomes easier to transfer them to paper to later organize or revise.

Writing is universal – since its invention, it has carried civilization forward by allowing each generation to learn from the last. Across our schoolwork, it allows us to be more critical with our course material and facilitate the transfer of knowledge between us as students, our professors, and anyone else we wish to share with. I’ve always loved how writing helps me communicate across time and across subjects – it helps me keep in mind there’s always something to learn and to share.

Shilpa Garg, 2017