What’s the problem with how leaders learn?

by Alan Hosking: Publisher of HR Future, South Africa's human strategy magazine, and a Leadership Renewal Coach for senior executives.
Human nature being what it is, whenever we read that we have to be “lifelong learners”, we’re inclined to say in our minds, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all of that.” But do we really know how to learn?

Judging from the lack of learning in leadership development around the globe, which is estimated to be a $366 billion industry yet is considered to be largely ineffective, we have to admit that, quite obviously, if the content is on point, either the programmes are not being conducted effectively or leaders have never been taught how to learn.

My view is that it is a bit of both, and they’re closely linked. Having done my time in the education and training environment, my view is that there are two fundamental flaws in leadership development as we know it.

The first flaw is that any current leadership programme that focuses on teaching skills only is out of touch with current trends. While this is a complex topic, the essence of my point is that global trends and two new generations in the workplace have dictated that a new style of leadership be applied in the workplace.

This new style cannot be taught with a skills-based approach only. Why? Because leaders now need not only skills but also certain qualities. Heard all the talk about leaders needing to demonstrate empathy, compassion, resilience, agility and more? Well, those are not skills. They’re qualities. And you can’t teach people to develop qualities in the same way that you teach them to acquire skills.

You see, simply put, skills are about what you DO and qualities are about what you ARE. And they require very different methodologies.

The second flaw is that adults in the workplace are never taught that how they learned at school and university is very different from how they need to learn in the workplace.

At school and university, learning involves the acquiring of information in order to demonstrate that you know the information. That’s it. And the education system is geared to giving you the opportunity to demonstrate that you know the information by writing a test or exam to prove it. So, if you are able to demonstrate this successfully, you pass the test or exam and receive an appropriate qualification.

But ... and this is a big “but” ...

Merely demonstrating that you know something in the workplace is simply not enough. Why? Because knowing something doesn’t mean you will actually do something or that you will change your behaviour (you usually don’t). So, knowing what empathy is and knowing that you’re supposed to demonstrate empathy, and knowing why it’s important to demonstrate empathy doesn’t mean that you WILL demonstrate empathy.

That’s because information doesn’t change behaviour. For example, smokers know that smoking is harmful to their health and can cause lung cancer and stroke. But does that knowledge cause them to stop smoking? Not at all. Again, I say, information doesn’t change behaviour.

Behavioural change is caused by ... insight - when someone sees something they’ve never seen before. When that happens, they make all the changes in themselves that need to be made. And those changes are usually permanent. No need for refresher courses because, once you SEE something, you can never UNSEE it.

So, what ineffective leadership programmes lack is insight-based learning methodologies, where delegates are helped to acquire insights that will cause them to undergo behavioural change. And, when that happens ... voila! The magic of behavioural change happens!

Simply put (and there are lots of “ifs” and “buts”), teaching leaders to acquire certain qualities involves helping them to SEE something, not so much to KNOW something.

If you want to be a leader who makes the necessary changes in how you think and lead, start asking yourself not what you need to know but what you need to see that you haven’t seen before.

Useful resources:
HR Future
HR Future is South Africa's only independent, most forward thinking human resource magazine with the richest content wealth of HR related issues on the continent of Africa to help executives recruit, manage, train, reward and retain the best talent.
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