Should You be an Action-Oriented or Reflective Leader?

Good leadership is essential for a business to do well, but pinning down what makes a good leader isn’t easy. However, broadly speaking, leadership styles fall into one of two camps – leaders with a preference for reflection or leaders who lean into action.

Action-oriented leaders like to get things done. And they often do, keeping things moving along, and a lot gets done in a relatively short period of time, but their output can often fall short of perfect.

For reflective leaders, data and information are essential to figuring out various options. Once they can see all possible options and weigh each against the other, they are more comfortable making choices.

Benefits and drawbacks 

There is no single ‘best style’ as it will depend on the situation. However, great leaders will be aware of their natural style and can take steps to mitigate some of the drawbacks that come with it.

The most important question to ask yourself is: what is motivating your behaviour?

If you are itching to take action to help ease your anxiety, it may not be the best approach. Taking action to deal with an unfolding crisis, however, is sensible and practical.

If, on the other hand, you feel afraid of making a decision, you can find yourself waiting too long. If, however, you know you will soon receive more information, then waiting can be prudent.

Effective leaders know when to be more active and when to take the time to pause. Sometimes it’s best to make quick decisions, other times it’s best to step back, filter out the noise, and find a more appropriate response.

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?

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. 

Emotionally regulate

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.

Communicate clearly 

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.

Build mixed teams

One of the best ways to blend styles is to surround yourself with people who naturally tend toward the opposite style. 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.


There is no single approach that works for everyone. While it may be tempting to avoid conflict by surrounding yourself with like-minded people, it can lead to blind spots. It is far better to do the work on yourself—identifying your style, practising the opposing style, finding ways to regulate your emotions, etc.—and then expand that work into your team.


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