An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Boosting Resilience

Leaders in the arts sector need to focus more on self-awareness and reflection, which is why the Boosting Resilience programme has developed a course on reflective journaling. Clive Holtham and Catherine Rogers report.

Photo of person scraping paint in exercise book with bank card
Catherine Rogers preparing her journal

Leadership thinking is mostly still stuck in the twentieth century, overemphasising the rational and analytical side of leadership. Rationality was important when organisations and people were often treated as cogs in a stable machine, but today many of those stability assumptions have gone and we face a world of complexity and ambiguity.

Even those with a serious reflection deficit can, if well motivated and prepared, get into the habit of regular leadership reflection

To lead in a world of ambiguity, we need to deal effectively with intangibles of all sorts, as well as with the human condition. Management thinkers as a group have dramatically overemphasised the role of rationality, in part because intangibles and the human condition simply can't be reduced to formulaic terms.

Research at the Cass Business School has concluded that the traditional rational qualities of leadership must be augmented with six intuitive qualities: being self-aware, perceptive, reflective, imaginative, critical and persuasive. Being reflective is not only a quality in its own right but underpins the other five.

We don't underestimate the difficulty of shifting from a predominantly rational approach to one that balances rationality and intuition. Indeed, those stuck in a rational-biased mindset may be quick to challenge or even deride soft approaches.

But frankly we now have an increasing ‘leadership reflection deficit’ – as worrying as any financial deficit. Reflection needs time and space, and it is understandable why overstretched leaders are reluctant to take time to devote to it out of the everyday. But not making time for reflection eliminates the capacity for deeper thought.

Reflective journaling course

In the Boosting Resilience programme we have prioritised reflection, and are convinced that reflective journaling for leadership needs to become a daily habit. We offer a custom online course, now complemented by a half-day workshop open to the wider sector.

The course helps with the mechanics of reflective writing - the tools and materials needed - as well as placing an emphasis on the motivational and imaginative aspects. The results of this special approach have been rewarding, with the good news that even those with a serious reflection deficit can, if well motivated and prepared, get into the habit of regular leadership reflection.

Catherine Rogers is one of the participants in the Boosting Resilience programme and took part in the online reflective journaling course. Here, she writes about how she has developed the reflection habit.

Case study: Catherine Rogers

Catherine manages the Creative Leicestershire programme, providing advice and support to artists and creative enterprises. She is also Chair of Junction Arts, a community and participatory arts charity.

I am a copious note-taker but I have never really journaled with much success, usually losing momentum when I have found my recollections to be a tedious record of the day-to-day without much insight. So, when we were offered the chance to do a creative journaling course that promised a tool for deeper reflection, I saw it as an opportunity to begin a process that always intrigued me but so far had eluded me. 

The course invited us to reflect using mark-making instead of words. We were given different prompts including quotes such as ‘conflict is the gadfly of thought’ from the psychologist John Dewey. I found this both challenging and liberating – challenging because my reflex was to write down words to express myself and liberating because I wasn’t under pressure to find the right word to articulate my thinking.

I am more comfortable with words, but mark-making and painting was forging the unfamiliar, and that for me was the most useful aspect of journaling. The big reveal was that it opened up a part of my brain that allowed me to problem-solve in a non-linear way and therefore my planning could be more spontaneous, innovative and explorative.

In the cultural sector we have become firefighters, traveling from one crisis to the next. This takes up energy, leaving us little room to prepare for the future, and it exposes us to failure. Reflection often feels like a luxury and thinking up solutions when faced with what look like irreconcilable issues is difficult. It is often where people give up, so an alternative route that better prepares us, and helps us navigate in the shadows, is a really useful process.

The question everyone wanted the answer to was that if reflection is an essential part of leadership, how do busy leaders find time to make it happen?

Helpfully, there are different parts to the process and it doesn’t need to take an hour every day or even every week. We learnt how to break journaling time into 20-minute chunks and I found the end of the day worked best for me. The first task was to prepare the pages in our journal for our reflections. This was definitely the most fun and sometimes became a meditative act.

I used acrylic paint blobbed on to the blank, white page that I then scraped across with an old cut-up credit card, leaving a wash of colour. I found that a page of colour, even if it was sometimes barely a scrape, encouraged me to use the space to reflect differently, rather than making yet another uninspiring and deflating list on a white page.

The final part of the process was the really neat bit. It involved going back over all the pages of reflection and ‘harvesting’ from them. I did this on a piece of card so I could move it from one page to the next. I created three columns: repeated themes, personal insights and urgent actions. I then drew up a list of potential solutions and actions rather than endless pages of thoughts that never go anywhere.

Since completing the course I have found the process of using marks, pictures and colour helpful in situations that require reflection including conferences, workshops and meetings. Drawing rather than writing has helped me listen and remember points much more effectively. I am also beginning to reflect on a deeper level, which is in turn strengthening my own resilience.


Clive Holtham is a UK National Teaching Fellow and Professor of Information Management and Director of the Cass Learning Laboratory, Cass Business School, City, University of London

Catherine Rogers manages the Creative Leicestershire programme, providing advice and support to artists and creative enterprises. She is also Chair of Junction Arts, a community and participatory arts charity.


Details of Reflective Journaling for Leadership activities taking place this autumn are available here.

The article, contributed and sponsored by Boosting Resilience, is part of a series on making the arts and cultural sector more resilient.

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Photo of Clive Holtham
Photo of Catherine Rogers