Action-oriented or reflective: What kind of leader should you be?

While everyone will agree that good leadership is essential for a business to succeed, finding a consensus about what makes someone a good leader is far from easy.

This is partly because different businesses require different qualities from those leading the way. However, leaders can be divided into two main camps: action-oriented leaders and reflective leaders. Let’s find out what defines each type of leader, and how you can become a better leader.

What’s the difference between action-oriented leaders and reflective leaders?

So what’s the difference between action-oriented leaders and reflective leaders? Action-oriented leaders get things done. While their output may be far from perfect, they keep things moving along, and a lot gets done in a relatively short period of time.

For reflective leaders, data and information are essential to figuring out the various options. They tend to work on the assumption that there is a ‘best answer’ and want to use logic to justify their response.

However, sometimes there is no ‘best’ answer, or the best answer is time sensitive. This can mean reflective leaders move too slowly to achieve the best realistic solution (or the least worst solution) or the situation could actually get worse due to the delay.

Why you need to blend the two styles

To be an effective leader you first need to identify and understand your own patterns. Do you tend towards action or reflection? When does your natural style work and when does it not work?

One way to achieve this is to seek feedback from your wider team. How do they perceive you? When do they feel your style is helpful and when do they feel it hinders?

Once you have identified your tendencies and patterns, you can begin to experiment with the opposing style. Action-oriented leaders can try pausing for longer before making a decision, seeking more input and information. Reflective leaders, on the other hand, can try making decisions quicker and seeing what happens.

By trying things out (preferably in relatively low-risk situations) you can see whether the opposing style necessarily works out worse, better, or about the same. This can help challenge your belief that your natural style is the best approach and make you more open to alternative ways of working.

Sometimes our action or reflection was driven by a sense of panic – commonly the pressure to make a decision about a high-stakes situation. Once in panic mode, our pre-frontal cortex shuts down and logic leaves the building. Instead, we act out of instinct, either through action or reflection, whichever comes more naturally.

Emotional regulation can help combat this sense of panic, restoring logic and reason to our decision-making process. Take a moment, breathe, and notice things around the room you are in to help ground yourself. It may feel like a waste of precious time, but it can be one of the most effective steps to good decision-making.

You need to communicate your leadership style

The best leaders are clear, consistent and have integrity. This means clearly communicating your natural leadership style to your team, helping them to understand how you make decisions and why that style works for you.

If you are an action-oriented leader, you can tell your team how you prefer to fail fast but also emphasise that they should speak up if and when they find a problem with your approach. That might encourage more reflective team members to speak up earlier.

Reflective leaders can communicate their desire to discover more information, emphasising to action-oriented team members that identifying bottlenecks and other issues is still very useful.

Of course, there are times when it is hard to be consistent. Perhaps you are naturally reflective, but you need to make a quick decision. In this situation, it can be useful to communicate to your team that, while you usually like to hear their input and reflect, you simply don’t have time. Vice versa, if you are more action-oriented, you can express your frustration at waiting for more information but be clear in anticipated deadlines.

Building mixed teams is the key to good leadership

One of the best ways to blend styles is to surround yourself with people who naturally tend toward the opposite style. If you are action-oriented, having trusted team members who are naturally more reflective can help temper your speed. Reflective leaders, likewise, can benefit from more action-oriented team members to keep things moving along.

The most important thing is to be clear and explicit about your own style and other people’s styles. It can be quite stressful for reflective types to work under an action-oriented leader – they aren’t allowed time to reflect, and their opinion doesn’t seem to matter. But if you inform them that you do value their reflective input and express how it helps you make better decisions at speed, they will feel useful and valued.

Action-oriented people will find it frustrating to work under a reflective leader – things don’t move fast enough. But by informing them that their quick ideas and desire for action are useful in your reflections, they will similarly feel important and valued.

With everyone clear about how things work, their place and purpose within the team, and your boundaries as the leader, everyone can work together to achieve the best possible outcomes while feeling respected and valued. 

John McLachlan is co-author of Real Leaders: a practical guide to the essential qualities of effective leadership.

He’s also co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy, a leadership development and organisational design consultancy working with business leaders to help align teams, support innovation, build sustainable organisations and develop exceptional people who are better able to achieve results – giving leaders more time to do what they do best.