How to get our leaders to learn

Could simply having a conversation with peers be the best way for leaders to learn? A compelling case for conversations as a means of organisational learning is explored below.

"Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn rather than when they teach."
— Rosabeth Moss Kantor: Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School


So often our leaders face pressure to do, do, do. High performance means efficient delivery and delivery is what is rewarded. In fact, many of our leaders are so busy doing “stuff “ that there are no opportunities to reflect and learn. In his article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, leading academic Chris Argyris says that well-educated, high-powered, high-commitment professionals who occupy key leadership positions often don’t know know how to learn. Sure, they may be fast learners in the content of management and leadership, but what about the process of learning – of reflecting on ones own performance on the quest for continuous improvement? The frustrating dilemma for a leader is to balance the constant demand for delivery with the time needed for reflection and learning.

Fuelling that frustration, organisational culture guru Edgar Schein points out that so often our culture does not support learning – that our left over legacy of patriarchy and hierarchy assumes that managers (mostly male) start with a self-image of having to be completely in control, decisive, certain and dominant so that neither the leader or the follower wants the leader to be uncertain, to admit not knowing, or not being control, to embrace error rather than defensively deny it. Yet these apparent frailties are core tenants that precede learning.

"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all."
Thomas Szasz, author and Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the State University of New York

So why all the focus on learning anyway? Peter Senge (1990) proposed the widely acknowledged rationale for creating learners and learning organisations is that in situations of rapid change, only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. The recent GFC could well highlight the demise of rigid, static organisations and the floushing of the adaptive and flexible ones. According to Peter Senge (1990: 3) learning organisations are:
…organisations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. For this to happen, it is argued, organisations need to ‘discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels’ (ibid.: 4).

So what about formal opportunities to learn? Many of us know from our own experience that sending leaders off to courses and executive retreats often does not result in sustained improvements and is done in isolation of the whole context of the leaders work environment. So they come back with great ideas that seemed good in theory but fizzle when applied to their own context. There is no doubt that the wave of action learning style programs for executive development have been designed to successfully address that very limitation. Apply what you learn through on-the-job projects and then learn and reflect as you do. Whilst they are huge improvement on theory driven programs, action learning programs may be somewhat contrived and limited in their impact on organisational learning if they result in only one person at a time participating in the learning. So how do you get leaders to learn when there is no time, very little cultural support, and very few formal learning programs that result in real, wholistic organisational learning?

The answer, strangely and interestingly, may come from renowned quantum physicists, David Bohm who studied under Einstein and Oppenheimer and who understood that learning comes from generating new shared meaning. His Dialogue technique (1996) originated from the premise that that matter is not solid. He believed through his work that the particles that comprise matter are not fixed in location or form, but are ever changing, and in fact may all simultaneously be interconnected, possibly in time as well as a space. He extended this to consciousness and believed " can feel a sense of flow in the stream of consciousness not dissimilar to the sense of flow in the movement of matter in general." Thus Dialogue is the particular process developed by Bohm for facilitating the exchange of deeply held views to create collaborative and shared learning, out of which may potentially emerge some new understanding.

"Dialogue makes possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding" David Bohm

The concept of sharing new learnings and understandings through conversation is not new. Historically, tribal cultures around the world have had various structured forms of conversation and dialogue to help leaders learn from the collective wisdom. For example, the “lekgotla” process of Botswana is one of the most well documented African Council processes that allows the chief of the village to hear about key issues. (Pioneers of Change Associates 2006). Each person in turn talks about how the issue affects their lives directly. Nothing is seen as an isolated event. All the stories are heard in context, respectfully, and taking the time it needs to take. Every voice is listened to and given equal weight. The same person won’t speak twice or respond until they’ve heard the views of others. Silence is also an integral part of the conversation as in between each voice the words are allowed to sink in. Emotion is expressed freely but constructively. The process enables each participant to reflect on and assess his own behaviour in relation to the community. Imagine the power of applying this powerful process in organisations and it soon becomes clear that this ancient wisdom can make a significant contribution to organisational and leadership learning today.

Our quest then, in seeking our leaders to learn, needs attention to much more than formal learning and course design of good adult learning theory with an action project thrown in. Wholistic organistional learning of the quality that Senge referred to needs a wholistic, organisational approach. Peers learning through conversation, and dialogue, applying and cascading those learnings throughout the organisation, fostering a learning culture, and acknowledging the learning process itself. So, as Meg Wheatley proposes, perhaps conversations can change the world.

"I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation. Not mediation, negotiation, problem solving, debate, or public meetings. Simple, truthful conversation where we each feel heard, and we each listen well. This is how great changes begin, when people begin talking to each other about their experiences, hopes, and fears. - Margaret Wheatley

Argyris, Chris (1991) “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” Harvard Business Review, Vol 69, Issue 3 p99

Bohm, David (1996) On Dialogue. editor Lee Nichol. London: Routledge

Wheatley, Margaret (2009) Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc

Pioneers of Change Associates. (2006). Mapping Dialogue: A research project profiling dialogue tools andprocesses for social change. Version 2.0. Johannesburg, South Africa

Schein, Edgar (1994) Organisational and Managerial Culture as a Facilitator or Inhibitor of Organisational Learning, Talk given at MIT Sloan School of Management, May 19, 1994

Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organisation, London: Random House

Author Alison Jardie (BA Hons Psych, MBA), Director of Leadership Evolution, specialises in leadership development, executive coaching, building high performing teams, and facilitating organisational development. Alison is a Level 1 Accredited Facilitator in the Nine Conversations in Leadership™, a global transformational leadership program which uses peer learning, Lekgotla, action projects and conversations to embed organisational leadership learning. Alison has over 20+ years experience in the organisational and leadership development fields and has a passionate optimism for human potential.