More than sev­en years ago, Peter Sen­ge alert­ed us to the need for more learn­ing organ­i­sa­tions. To my mind, that need has grown enor­mous­ly. Yet, the num­ber one lim­i­ta­tion I find to organ­i­sa­tions becom­ing bet­ter at learn­ing is that their lead­ers are not very adept at it.

Last Octo­ber (2012), I sug­gest­ed that we should “Hail the Agile Leader”. Here’s how I closed my thoughts back then:

Research from a grow­ing num­ber of schol­ars sug­gests that lead­ers who are able to seek out, man­age, under­stand and ulti­mate­ly learn from new and chal­leng­ing expe­ri­ences are able to act deci­sive­ly even when uncer­tain. As a result, learn­ing-agile indi­vid­u­als can effec­tive­ly take in and process infor­ma­tion, inte­grate new ideas with pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences, reflect upon new insights and gen­er­ate solu­tions to prob­lems that ulti­mate­ly lead to new ways of doing things. In my expe­ri­ence, agile lead­ers are best suit­ed to utilise oppor­tu­ni­ty fore­sense when con­front­ed by dis­rup­tive ambi­gu­i­ty. That is, agile lead­ers don’t allow them­selves to become stuck with the solu­tions that worked for yesterday’s prob­lems, even if they them­selves were the ones who came up with those solutions.

Many have tak­en an inter­est in the sub­ject and are reg­u­lar­ly adding to the knowl­edge base on this sub­ject. One good treat­ment of the sub­ject that was pub­lished at about the same time as my own post (which I just dis­cov­ered) is a post by Lean­na Cruz with a most-inter­est­ing title: “Learn­ing Agili­ty — The Dif­fer­ence Between a Suc­cess­ful Leader and One on the Path to Derail­ment”. Cruz, writ­ing for Pos­i­tive­ly Suc­cess­ful, has a nice four-point def­i­n­i­tion of “learn­ing agili­ty” that I would sug­gest you add to your own lex­i­con of crit­i­cal busi­ness skills:

Indi­vid­u­als high in learn­ing agili­ty are describe as:

1. Seek­ing more expe­ri­ences to learn from

2. Enjoy­ing com­plex prob­lems and chal­lenges asso­ci­at­ed with new experiences

3. Get­ting more out of these expe­ri­ences because they have an inter­est in mak­ing sense of them, and

4. Per­form­ing bet­ter because they incor­po­rate new skills into their reper­toire as a result

She also reveals how she might have decid­ed how to title her arti­cle: “A study con­duct­ed by The Cen­ter for Cre­ative Lead­er­ship [CCL] found that suc­cess­ful exec­u­tives are those who tend to learn new per­spec­tives and behav­iours from both work and life expe­ri­ences while derailed exec­u­tives, all of whom had been suc­cess­ful for many years and had many expe­ri­ences and key job assign­ments, showed vir­tu­al­ly no pat­tern of learning.” 

The CCL study was done in 2012, and you can down­load a 19-page PDF on the sub­ject here. The A. J. O’Con­nor con­sul­tan­cy also has an excel­lent com­par­i­son-con­trast of CCL’s view on learn­ing agili­ty ver­sus two oth­er stud­ies. Even more recent­ly, check out the 2013 Korn/Ferry Insti­tute blog on the sub­ject, in which they note, “Stud­ies have repeat­ed­ly shown that the abil­i­ty to learn from expe­ri­ence is what dif­fer­en­ti­ates suc­cess­ful exec­u­tives from unsuc­cess­ful ones.”

Learn-Lead 2bIt may seem obvi­ous that get­ting to next is, at the root lev­el, an exer­cise in learn­ing. But that does not alter the fact that some organ­i­sa­tion­al lead­ers are averse to learn­ing, plac­ing 80 or more per cent of their con­fi­dence for sus­tain­ing the firm by rely­ing only on what made it suc­cess­ful in the past. For such lead­ers, new­ly con­ceived process­es, sys­tems, prod­ucts, ser­vices, tech­nolo­gies and work­place exper­i­ments are not only alien to their sense of what’s need­ed to keep their enter­prise grow­ing, they may even feel that any time spent by any­one dis­cussing new pos­si­bil­i­ties is time wast­ed. When lead­ers are anchored in the past — what they learned and did in years gone by — their organ­i­sa­tions tend to tip­toe into the future no mat­ter how fast their com­peti­tors are rac­ing ahead.

Organ­i­sa­tions learn when its peo­ple learn, and I find that peo­ple through­out an enter­prise are much more like­ly to devel­op a pas­sion for learn­ing when their lead­ers mod­el the behav­iour. And Cruz affirms that this is not an option for leaders:

The evi­dence is grow­ing that long-term suc­cess as a leader seems to depend large­ly on a readi­ness and abil­i­ty to learn, because it enables us to acquire new behav­iors quick­ly and effec­tive­ly, which ulti­mate­ly enables adapt­abil­i­ty and resilience. While this over­ar­ch­ing con­cept of learn­ing agili­ty may always have been impor­tant, it seems even more so now, giv­en the con­stant change in today’s busi­ness environment.

Before you can learn to seek the future, you have to seek to learn.

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