An Applied Comparison of Gibbs Reflective Cycle and Scharmers Theory U

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  • Published On: 18-11-2023
Leadership development: an applied comparison of Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and Scharmer’s Theory U

Christopher Potter Dr Christopher Potter is based at Hartpury College, Gloucester, UK.


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine two contrasting leadership development methodologies, Reflective Practice and Scharmer’s Theory U.

Design/methodology/approach – Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and Scharmer’s Reflecting Deeply exercise were applied to the same leadership incident on separate days.

Findings – Reflective Practice provided helpful insights through focusing on one’s thoughts, feelings and motives during the event, as well as the actions of others and the author’s responses to them. The author found that using Scharmer’s Reflecting Deeply exercise enabled a deeper understanding of the incident to emerge, which also provided new and distinct insights.

Social implications – Many authors cite a current crisis of leadership, not least of all a perceived failure to tackle the environmental challenges we face. By seeking to develop more intelligent and rounded leaders, leadership itself ought to improve which in turn should help society tackle pressing issues. Originality/value – To the author’s knowledge, a direct comparison of the leadership development methodologies used in this paper has not been previously described. This paper provides useful insights into the practical application of Reflective Practice and Scharmer’s Theory U, which will help inform others seeking to develop as leaders. Keywords Leadership development, Reflective Practice, Presencing, Scharmer, Theory U Paper type Case study



According to Stogdill (1974) “there are almost as many definitions of leadership development as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept” (p. 259) and by extension, there are almost as many management development methodologies as there are definitions of leadership development. A common theme running through most, if not all development methodologies, is reflection, although the mechanism of reflection differs substantially. In the 1970s, Kolb developed an experiential learning model (Kolb and Fry, 1975) based on the work of Dewey and Piaget. Gibbs’ (1988) Reflective Cycle is an extension of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, placing theory and practice in an iterative circle. In Schön’s (1983) classification, this process is reflection-on-action rather than reflection-in-action. Reflective Practice is fundamentally bound to analytical thinking, and while this is suited to many tasks, it is less useful for solving so-called “wicked” problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973), a class of problems of which the leadership situation focused upon in this paper is a member. Several authors argue that these kinds of problems require a different approach (Grint, 2008; Kahane, 2004), aptly described by Grint’s (2008) assertion, that wicked problems require “clumsy solutions” and supported by Claxon (1997) who pithily notes that “intelligence increases when we think less”. This implies an approach that is antithetical to RP, one that focuses on not thinking. Claxton describes such ways of knowing as tapping into a deep-dwelling intelligence that suspends conceptualisation, is relaxed and playful, welcomes ambiguity and confusion, looks at all of the available information and is not under pressure to devise solutions. This has striking similarities to Scharmer’s “presencing”, described by Scharmer as accessing our deepest source of knowing and being. Scharmer describes four types of “listening”: downloading, factual, empathic, and generative. The generative state requires a deep, focused awareness, “a panoramic type of perception” (Scharmer, 2007, p. 3) that is boundless. In Scharmer’s view, moving from reactive responses that deal with symptoms, to generative responses that deal with problems in an integrated way (Martin, 2007) is the critical contemporary leadership challenge. To reach this generative place, Scharmer recommends discovering an inner place of stillness, which allows a deeper state of knowing to emerge. He argues that finding innovative solutions requires access to the intelligence of the “heart and hand” rather than conscious thought.


Scharmer has crystallised his ideas into a so-called “Theory U”

As a result of the contrasting nature of RP and Scharmer’s Theory U, this author was interested in both the processes involved and outcomes of applying these techniques to the same leadership incident.


Gibbs’ framework was adopted to reflect on a specific leadership incident; a team meeting led by the author, during which he challenged what he perceived to be a persistent negative culture within the group (see Appendix 1 for a description of the incident and application of Gibbs’ framework). On a separate day, Scharmer’s Reflecting Deeply exercise was applied to the same leadership situation. This exercise involves responding to five questions by writing down immediate thoughts, deliberately avoiding reflection; then, after pausing in silence for five minutes, writing answers to a further seven questions adopting a slow meditative process. In this way, practitioners are moved through Theory U (see Appendix 2).


The author found that working through the RP process offered helpful insights; by describing the incident in detail, considering the context as well as the author’s and others’ actions, a useful gateway to accessing the thoughts and feelings precipitated by the incident was provided. The author was able to better understand his underlying motives, what he wanted to achieve and why. The questions facilitated a deep self-awareness by drawing attention to feelings and thoughts during the incident, providing an opportunity to evaluate and analyse what happened, draw conclusions and ultimately derive actions for the future. The author found Scharmer’s Reflecting Deeply process to be beneficial, with new and subtly different information emerging. In the first part of the exercise, a deeper understanding of the situation emerged. The exercise helped the author better understand his own motivations, what he wanted to achieve and why. The author found that more questions arose about his own lack of knowledge, specifically relating to culture change. In the second part of the exercise, the author was able to distil his vision in a clear way and identify existing strengths and enablers to move towards it. The most telling example of the differences between the two approaches was the emergence of the idea to dismiss staff who were most negative in the group. The author believes that such an idea would not have emerged from conscious reflection, when the checks and balances of judgement were active; it was because conscious judgement was attenuated that such solutions arose, unpalatable as they were to the author’s conscious mind.


Despite the utility of RP, the approach has been criticised. Collin et al. (2013) describes RP as a “fuzzy” concept, noting that despite more than 80 years of research, no unified definition exists; in fact, the term RP is not consistently used, terms such as “reflexivity”, “reflection” and “reflective analysis” are analogous descriptions. The lack of a clear definition led Beauchamp (2006) to question whether there is a similar lack of understanding in the teaching of RP.

Schön’s dichotomy between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action has also been criticised.

Moon (1999) suggests that these two process are not distinct, rather, they represent a continuum of the same process. Scharmer (2007) offers a cautionary note on reflection-in-action. He contends that:

Successful leadership depends on the quality of attention (this author’s emphasis) […] that the leader brings to any situation (Scharmer, 2007, p. 1).

Kahane (2004) supports the idea that attention is key to leadership success, suggesting that attending to what one is doing and listening to others are fundamental to solving difficult problems. If Scharmer and Kahane are right, then attempting to reflect whilst one is in the process of acting will surely deter from leadership since it is not possible to both reflect-in-action and fully attend to action in parallel.

There are fundamental methodological concerns with RP, many of which are linked to its conceptual opacity. Collin et al. (2013) point to the weak comparability of studies because of the diverse nature of approaches adopted. Korthagen (2001) notes the difficulty of measuring the RP

process, since what is of interest occurs inside the practitioner’s brain and not directly observable. Collin et al. (2013) highlight a concern which cuts across many areas of research, that studies are used not merely as empirical endeavours, but to support particular programmes of RP, which have been developed by the study author(s).

While this author has to some extent portrayed Theory U and RP as opposing approaches, this is not strictly true. Theory U requires reflection in the upward section of the U, which is the sensing and discovery process; learning by doing rather than “analysis paralysis” (Scharmer, 2007). The Reflecting Deeply exercise also recommends reflecting on the responses afterwards.

Notwithstanding the fact that this author found Scharmer’s approach beneficial, it is not without problems. If RP is a “fuzzy” concept, then the same criticism can be levelled at Theory U; it is a difficult conceptual framework to define. The essence of Theory U and other meditative approaches that recommend accessing deeper, loosely defined “ways of knowing” is that they cannot be

described in terms that the rational mind easily grasps; this is their strength but also their weakness. Like RP, if a method cannot be defined clearly, then it is difficult to teach others to use.

Furthermore, as noted by Kalman (2007), in addition to the relatively “simple” Theory U concept, Scharmer’s book provides:

Twenty-one propositions of social field theory, twelve management functions, three types of complexity, the U-space of social emergence versus the shadow-space of social pathology, the four barriers to organisational learning and change, the eight lessons of learning communities (Kalman, 2007, p. 3).

“The essence of Theory U and other meditative approaches that recommend accessing deeper, loosely defined ‘ways of knowing’ is that they cannot be described in terms that the rational mind easily grasps; this is their strength but also their weakness”.

This level of complexity leads to concerns over the accessibility of Theory U. As noted by Peter Senge in the foreword of Scharmer’s book, “practical know-how in implementing the U is still in its infancy”. In the second half of the Reflecting Deeply exercise, one is asked to “sit in silence for five minutes and listen deeply to the response that your future self-wants to give you”. This can be surprisingly difficult, and as anybody who has tried meditation will know, the first thing that happens when one tries to stop thinking is that thoughts multiply. In this author’s view, presencing may take sustained practice. On the other hand, the immediate responses asked for by the questions in the first half of the exercise are far more accessible, allowing a way to short-circuit access to one’s deeper intelligence.

Finally, many decisions professionals make are heavily time-dependent and so do not lend themselves to slow, meditative decision making. Scharmer recommends practicing Theory U in a remote location and talks of attending meditation retreats. Even if one accepts that a slower, meditative approach is advantageous, it may still be hard to implement while the environments in which most people work, operate in the opposite way.

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The author applied two leadership development approaches to a specific leadership situation and found strengths and weaknesses with both approaches. This is unsurprising since it is unlikely any single approach will contain all the answers. The benefit of the two approaches adopted in this paper is that they access different aspects of intelligence and as such, may provide a means to access a fuller breadth of knowing. However, a weakness common to both approaches is that individuals are asked to seek solutions from within themselves rather than accessing the intelligence of others.


Beauchamp, C. (2006), “Understanding reflection in teaching: a framework for analysing the literature”, unpublished doctoral thesis, McGill University, Montreal.

Claxton, G. (1997), Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Fourth Estate, London.

Collin, S., Karsenti, T. and Komis, V. (2013), “Reflective practice in initial teacher training: critiques and perspectives”, Reflective Practice, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 104-17.

Gibbs, G. (1988), Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods, Oxford Further Education Unit, Oxford.

Grint, K. (2008), “Wicked problems and clumsy solutions: the role of leadership”, Clinical Leader, Vol. 1 No. 2, pp. 11-26.

Kahane, A. (2004), Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA.

Kalman, M. (2007), Book Review: Theory U: Leading From the Future as it Emerges – The Social Technology of Presencing, Integral Leadership Review, available at:

review-theory-u-leading-from-the-future-as-it-emerges-the-social-technology-of-presencing/ (accessed November 20, 2014).

Kolb, D. and Fry, R. (1975), Towards a Theory of Applied Experiential Learning. Theories of Group Processes, John Wiley, Chichester.

Korthagen, F. (2001) Linking Practice and Theory: The Pedagogy of Realistic Teacher Education, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

Martin, R. (2007), “How successful leaders think”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 85 No. 6, pp. 60-7. Moon, J. (1999), Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: Theory and Practice, Kogan Page, London.

Rittel, H.W. and Webber, M.M. (1973)”, Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 155-69.

Scharmer, C.O. (2007), Addressing the Blind Spot of Our Time, Scharmer, CO., available at: www. (accessed December 15, 2014).

Schön, D.A. (1983), Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Temple Smith, London. Stodgill, R.M. (1974), Handbook of Leadership; A Survey of Theory and Research, The Free Press, New York, NY.

Further reading

Fish, D. and Coles, C. (1998), “Professionalism eroded: professionals under siege”, in Fish, D. and Coles, C. (Eds), Developing Professional Judgement in Health Care: Learning Through the Critical Appreciation of Practice, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Appendix 1

Reflection using Gibbs’ model (normal text: framework questions; italicised text: author’s reflections)

Stage 1: Description of the even

Describe in detail the event you are reflecting on.

The situation was a monthly team meeting that I lead. The team tend to be somewhat cynical and negative about their work environment, which in itself may not necessarily be a problem, however, staff turnover is relatively high, with a number of able staff having left. This is a situation I want to reverse because:

1. I want to retain my best staff;

2. it is a drain on the time and energy of myself and the team in recruiting, inducting and mentoring new staff as well as on the student experience and national students’ survey results; and

3. regular attrition affects the morale of the remaining staff.

In my view, negativity, cynicism and pessimism are counter-productive, negatively affecting the work environment in a number of ways. I have noticed that this is a common theme in the academic departments in which I have worked in several institutions and that the negative evaluation of the environment is inaccurate. Furthermore, the culture of negativity leads otherwise positive, committed people to become negative and unhappy with their jobs. For these reasons I am sensitive to negative/cynical attitudes in my team and feel I need to challenge them. During this meeting I openly challenged the negative comments made by some group members and the result was some difficult conversations/discussions with members of the group.

Stage 2: Feelings and thoughts (self-awareness)

At this stage, try to recall and explore those things that were going on inside your head.

I was feeling positive and upbeat at the start of the meeting, I was buoyed by a recent inspection outcome and was looking forward to sharing the good news with the team, who I thought would feel similarly positive. When the negative and cynical comments began, I was annoyed and expressed surprise that given the positive outcome, some people still chose to be negative and cynical. I challenged the negativity directly. This made me feel somewhat uncomfortable because it was clear the tone of the meeting was now rather serious and negative. I didn’t feel I was at fault but was still unhappy with how the meeting went. After the meeting I became more annoyed. I also wondered whether I was right to challenge the behaviour; if I was right, could I have handled it better; and, wondered what to do next, if anything.

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Stage 3: Evaluation and analysis

Try to evaluate or make a judgement about what has happened.

I took pride in my strength to challenge the group, to be strong enough to challenge them about something I felt was important rather than acquiesce to the dominant culture to simply maintain the status quo. However, the meeting ended on a sour note and was clearly uncomfortable for some of the group.

I challenged the negative culture clearly, unambiguously and professionally. I was not happy that the meeting ended on the sour note that it did, although this was instigated by the negative comments of some of the group and I still feel those comments needed to be challenged. I was not convinced I handled the situation as effectively as I could have however. Should I have avoided challenging the individuals in this setting and spoken to them individually afterwards? Or, was it right to challenge them openly, to “make an example” in front of the rest of the group?

On the other hand, I also wonder whether I am being too self-critical and whether I ought to accept that when people have their views challenged, they are unlikely to welcome it.

Stage 4: Conclusion (synthesis)

It is here that you are likely to develop insight into you own and other people’s behaviour in terms of how they contributed to the outcome of the event.

I think I was right to challenge the behaviour and that it was right to do it during the meeting. I felt (and feel) it was important to show the rest of the group I was not prepared to let that behaviour go unchallenged. However, perhaps I ought to have softened my voice, facial expression and challenged the comments in a less serious manner, knowing it was likely to be unfavourably met. Perhaps I could have provided more context to my challenge by explaining the broader context with respect to staff morale and turnover. Perhaps I also could have spoken to the staff involved individually afterwards to discuss the issue.

Stage 5: Action plan

During this stage you should think yourself forward into encountering the event again and to plan what you would do – would you act differently or would you be likely to do the same? If/when the situation arises again, I plan to highlight the negative comments, but rather than challenge the individuals concerned, I will make a broader point about culture and my concerns on how that affects the group. I will point to evidence for the detrimental effects of negativity and pessimism. I will flag that I plan to tackle this issue by launching a culture change programme in the Dept.

Appendix 2

Reflection using Scharmer’s (2007) Reflecting Deeply exercise (normal text: framework questions; italicised text: author’s answers)

Find a quiet place and consider the following questions. After you read each question write down your immediate thoughts. Do not give yourself time to think, just write then down immediately without censoring or trying to construct a good piece of prose:

1. What is your current professional and personal situation? What are the key challenges? What are the emerging areas of possibility that your life asks you to address? I’m facing a negative culture that I want to change. I want to transform the culture to become positive, brave, enthusiastic, supportive, happy and fulfilling.

2. What questions, if explored more deeply, could help you to address your current situation better, and to take the next step in your professional journey? Why is the culture as it is? What can be done to change it? Do my staff want a culture change? Do they see the benefits of it? How can I change the culture?

3. When do you feel your heart opening? What do you truly love? Achieving something worthwhile. Being positive and enthusiastic about my work. Feeling good about what I do. Being part of a positive, energetic team.

4. Imagine you could fast-forward to the last moments of your life, when it is time for you to pass on. Imagine yourself at that moment looking back on your life’s journey as a while. What would you want to see in that moment? What would you want to be remembered for by the people that live after you? I made a difference, achieved something meaningful, lasting, made things better.

5. Let’s now turn to your current situation. Imagine that you could link to your highest future possibility or to your highest or best future self – and that you could ask one question to which you would get a meaningful response. What question would you ask? What do I need to do in order to change the culture? How can I achieve it quickly and effectively?

6. Now pause and stay in silence for five minutes to listen deeply to the response that your future self wants to give you. Stay with it and write it down: ask the most negative group member to lead the culture change programme; let the group identify their top 3 dislikes and create a task-force to fix each. Support them as much as I can to fix those things; hold a workshop to look at the culture, what does it mean to people and their approach to work; explain my concerns about the culture and the wider issues regarding staff turnover; marginalise those who refuse to engage; identify a vanguard and ask them to join me in modelling the way, to plant seeds of positivity and energy; sack those who are most negative and drain the energy from the group; and transfer responsibility to the collective as per Grint.

7. Crystallise your vision and intention. What vision do you have for yourself and your work? What are some essential elements of the future that you want to create with your work and life? Positive, supportive, energetic, flourishing, fulfilling environment. Everybody is totally committed to the same goal and path.

8. What would you have to let go of in order to bring your vision into reality? What is the old stuff that must die? I need to give some control to the group. I need to learn from the group, be informed by them. My need to control needs to die. My reliance on the scientific, analytical solution must die; the “artistic” solution needs to be born.

9. Where in your current life do you experience the seeds and early beginnings of the future you want to create? My own outlook, energy and commitment. Those in the group who are like me. I believe I have the ability/skills to achieve it.

10. Over the next three months, if you were able to prototype a microcosm of the future, which you could explore by doing, what would it look like? Working with a sub-group of the team as a vanguard.

11. Who are the core partners and helpers that would help you bring it into reality – and that could support you in your highest future intention? The positive members of the team. My boss, if I can get him to agree to give resources to fix the top 3 negatives.

12. If you committed to taking on the project of bringing your intention into reality, what practical first steps would you take over the next three to seven days? identify my vanguard; and arrange an event to seek views from the team.

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