Active vs. Reflective Leadership: Two Educational Styles

The authoritarian style of leadership no longer has the influence it once did in classrooms or businesses. This shift is particularly important in higher education, where faculty and staff have the potential to influence thousands of students.

Instead, active and reflective leadership are taking hold. These methods reflect a call for forward-thinking leaders who consider an institution’s vision as well as individuals’ needs. For example, leaders in higher education understand that an effective learning environment caters to its students, takes professor input into consideration, and doesn’t shy away from systemic evolution.

Read on to learn more about how future leaders can better implement these leadership styles.

A manager demonstrates leadership.

Why Leadership Styles Matter

How leaders act plays a major role in the environments they create. Poor leaders can destroy morale and hold an entire business back from reaching its potential. Strong leadership can push a group of successful employees to new heights.

In higher education, leadership styles at the top have a direct impact on students. Professors who feel motivated by their leadership will be empowered rather than discouraged. As a result, they may go the extra mile to assist students, get involved with the university, support their fellow professors, and work to improve the entire department or college.

Both active and reflective leadership styles have a place in academia. They’re not exclusionary, but instead useful in tandem. Understanding each type of leadership is integral to success as a leader in higher education, as well as in other industries.

What Is Active Leadership?

Active leadership, as the name implies, requires leaders who are directly involved with their employees or team members. They encourage them, engage with them, and cheer them on. Active leaders are energetic and passionate, forming genuine connections with their teams. Instead of leading from a distance, active leaders are an integral part of the workplace.


Active leaders understand each individual’s importance to the overall department or workplace. They engage with employees and co-workers regularly and go out of their way to make sure they feel valued and supported. An active leader checks with all team members, from maintenance through support staff and executives, to ensure they feel heard and that management respects their issues.


Communication is key to running a successful workplace, and leaders who promote open communication create safer, more transparent work environments. Whether it’s responding to criticism, resolving a conflict, or letting their teams know about difficulties or upcoming changes, active leaders do not hide from these topics. Instead, they speak with authority and compassion.


Active leaders show their appreciation for their employees — and not just for their work output. They might recognize birthdays and work anniversaries, provide insurance benefits above the industry standard, or go out of their way to provide personalized gifts or feedback. Employees notice these efforts and feel valued as a result. Over time, this allows active leaders to cultivate a loyal, dependable workforce.

What Is Reflective Leadership?

Reflective leadership is the result of a society that focuses less on hierarchical structures and more on equality. Reflective leaders understand that all of their employees have just as much inherent value as they do. They strive to reflect inward on their leadership style, the impact it has on their employees, and how their employees feel on a daily basis.

In a higher education setting, this sense of self-awareness and empathy can soften the edges of a sometimes challenging and often evolving industry.


Reflective leadership asks managers to observe the employee experience. Leaders practicing this style strive to be an engaged member of the team and pay attention to how the employees talk, act, and approach their work. This attention allows leaders to gain context for different situations and increase their understanding of workplace dynamics. As a result, reflective leaders can better manage issues and understand the impact those decisions have on the work environment and company culture.


Reflective leaders are modest and understand that their leadership is not absolute or authoritarian. They know that they are not inherently better or more right than others. They remind themselves not to take things personally when employees change jobs, ask for time off, or complain, as good leaders know they need to stay humble and not develop an ego. As a result, they can earn their teams’ trust and respect.


No one likes to receive an impossible task. Unfortunately, team members often become overwhelmed by their workloads. Reflective leaders can mitigate or overcome this by paying attention to tasks’ implications. They should understand what’s reasonable and what isn’t, the time commitments they’re expecting, and how their own actions, thoughts, and behaviors influence the team.

Learn Active and Reflective Leadership with an Online Doctorate in Education

Both active and reflective leadership can help those in positions of authority create a positive, uplifting culture. In education, strong leadership can directly influence student experiences. Each style has the potential to create an environment where everyone, from the top administrators to the first-time student, can benefit.

A degree program such as Maryville University’s online Doctor of Education focuses on how to manage a complex environment with grace and skill. Students learn to lean on their natural strengths, adapt to the changing educational landscape, and build a cohesive team of faculty and staff who lead with compassion. Discover how this degree program can help you meet your professional goals and how the curriculum can put you closer to becoming a leader in the field.

Recommended Readings
Four Key Leadership Skills in Higher Education and How to Develop Them

Trends in Higher Education

What Higher Education Administrators Can Learn About Addressing Social Issues on Campus

Chief Learning Officer, “Learning Across the Generations”

Chief Learning Officer, “The 6 Skills Every Active Leader Needs”

CIO, “Does Leadership Style Matter?”

Engage for Success, “Reflective Leadership”

Inc, “Why Reflective Leadership Is the Key to a Successful Purpose Transformation”

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