Commission for Student Involvement

Critical Reflexivity for Leadership Educators

Lauren Irwin, University of Southern California,, @Lauren_Irwin22

Nicholas Tapia-Fuselier, University of North Texas,

            Leader and leadership development are central to higher education’s commitment to student success, career readiness, and citizenship (Dugan & Komives, 2007). However, many commonly used leadership theories and tools are steeped in hegemonic systems and norms that uphold white supremacy (Dugan, 2017). Dugan’s (2017) Leadership Theory: Cultivating Critical Perspectives, encourages educators to engage in practices of deconstruction and reconstruction in order to approach leader and leadership development with a more critical and just lens. However, before educators begin critically examining leadership theories and tools, it is essential to examine and reflect on one’s own positionality through critical reflexivity. This post will provide practical tools for leadership educators to engage in critical reflexivity in order to better understand the ways one’s social identities and location influence personal understandings of and approaches to leadership education. Practitioners can utilize these tools to engage in critical reflection, spark ongoing dialogue, and disrupt white supremacy in leadership education.

            Positionality is a concept in qualitative research that captures the researcher’s potential biases to a given research topic. This is an important tool in the qualitative research tradition that challenges objectivity in the research process and acknowledges that there are social and cultural differences between the researcher and the participants in a research study that must be accounted for (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).  Researchers can explore their positionality to a given study utilizing critical reflexivity.  Critical reflexivity is an “understanding of the diversity and complexity of one’s own social location” (Hesse-Biber, 2017, p. 45).  Critical reflexivity helps researchers acknowledge the ways their identities, values, and ideals influence their work. We believe that the concepts of positionality and critical reflexivity can extend past the research space and into the practitioner space in meaningful ways. 

Engaging in critical reflexivity requires both formal and informal reflection. Informally, practitioners can think about or talk with colleagues about the ways they engage in leadership, experience personal leader identity development, and reasons for working in leadership education. By starting with individual experiences, educators can explore the lens with which they approach and understand their work. Leadership educators may want to consider thinking about or discussing some of the questions in the “Reflecting on Leaders and Leadership” section below.

            We also encourage practitioners to engage in formal reflection. Formal reflection can be done individually, with colleagues, or as part of ongoing development. We suggest starting with a free-write around some of the prompts included in “Reflecting on Social Identities and Leadership” at the end of this post.  It is important to note that engaging in critical reflexivity is an ongoing process; below, we have included questions for ongoing reflection in the section titled “Reflecting on Leadership Development on Campus.”  Although reflecting and engaging in dialogue one time is a great way to start the process of dismantling bias and hegemonic norms in leadership education, ongoing reflection and critical dialogue supports personal development, improves professional practice, and supports the development and implementation of critical perspectives in one’s work.

Dugan’s (2018) editor’s note for New Directions for Student Leadership, asks leadership educators to critically consider their own roles in perpetuating hegemonic leadership education practices:

“As educators, what compels us to teach a story most often told about leadership rather than beginning with the base learning skills to approach any topic through a lens allowing for deconstruction and reconstruction? How might resistance reflect our own need to ‘unlearn’ in ways that are both uncomfortable and require considerable effort?”


Critical reflexivity allows educators to reflect on our resistance, begin to unlearn hegemonic practices and stocks of knowledge, and engage in new and more equitable approaches to leadership education. However, critically examining changing existing practices in leadership education will require considerable effort, discomfort, and perseverance. Changing and modifying existing tools, pedagogy, and theories can create leadership education programs and practices that are more representative, equitable, and just. We encourage all leadership educators to engage in ongoing critical reflexivity as a first step in understanding and unlearning hegemonic discourses and practices in leadership education. 

Prompts for Engaging in Critical Reflexivity

The below questions are adapted from Dugan,Turman, and Barnes’ (2017) Leadership theory: A facilitator’s guide to cultivating critical perspectives and Hesse-Biber’s (2017) The practice of qualitative research.

1) Reflecting on Leaders and Leadership

  • When did I first notice leaders? Who were they? What kind of leaders were they?
  • How do I define leadership? How has that definition evolved over time? What has influenced my understanding of leadership?
  • Who or what encouraged me to get involved in leadership education?
  • What leadership theories am I drawn to or use most often?
  • What do I like about leadership education?  What do I find challenging about leadership education?

2) Reflecting on Social Identities and Leadership

  • What are my social identities? Which of my identities carry privilege?  Which carry marginalization?
  • How much have I thought about my social identities and the ways they show up at work?  How do they show up in the work that I do?
  • Considering my social identities, what kinds of structural advantages or disadvantages do I experience related to leadership?
  • What specific values, attitudes, and perspectives do I hold that influence how I view leadership?
  • What kind of biases do I hold that get imposed onto my approach to leadership education?
  • How do my specific values, attitudes, and perspectives influence my style as a leadership educator?

3) Reflecting on Leadership Development on Campus

  • How do my experiences and values shape my own approach to designing leadership education? How did I come to define what constitutes leadership education?
  • How does my position on these issues influence how I design, support, and facilitate leadership education? What experiences, values, identities, and beliefs do I privilege in my work?
  • Who benefits most from our campus' leadership development programs?  Who is being left out?
  • How is students' development around their critical understanding of social location incorporated into leadership training?
  • Do our leadership program opportunities discuss equity, inclusion, and justice?
  • What would a leadership program that centers social justice look like?


Dugan, J. P. (2018). Editor’s Note. New directions for student leadership, 2018(159), 5-8.

Dugan, J. P. (2017). Leadership theory: Cultivating critical perspectives. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Dugan, J.P., Komives, S.R. (2007). Developing leadership capacity in college students: Findings from a national study. A Report from the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership. College Park, MD: National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs. 

Dugan, J. P., Turman, N.T., Barnes, A.C. (2017). Leadership theory: A facilitator’s guide to cultivating critical perspectives. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2017). The practice of qualitative research (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE. 

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.