Leadership-and-learning

Sadly, John F Kennedy never had the chance to utter this memorable quote from the speech he was due to deliver in Dallas on November 22nd 1963. Nevertheless, its truth is replicated endlessly in the plethora of articles, books and academic reports published on leadership every year – although the implications for leaders and leadership is less commonly explored.

Leadership Development is an industry in itself. An industry I am proud to be part of. In this industry a great deal of time and effort is spent identifying potential leaders and feeding them with knowledge, insight and a host of experiences designed to inculcate a set of skills and qualities deemed necessary to be successful leaders in current and future business contexts. A good deal of this effort is worthwhile and received positively by the participants and their staff. But is it always an efficient use of time, money and effort?

I have seen some leadership competency frameworks that demand managers develop and demonstrate literally dozens of leadership qualities and skills. It’s no wonder stress is rising among middle managers.

What’s interesting is that when subordinates are asked what they value most about their managers they say the best managers do two things. First, they listen well, take a real interest in their challenges and – crucially –  ask how they can help their subordinate do a better job. Second – and even more crucially – they actually do something about the feedback they are given. Some of this is not rocket science!

So, how would it be in our organisations if we taught people how to learn to be better managers and leaders? How would it be if we framed leadership as a ‘learning mindset’ that everyone can step into in the right circumstances?

A first step on this learning journey would be to reflect on how well we listen to people’s concerns and issues about getting a job done, really work on what it means to ask great questions that help one another get to the heart of a business or organisational issue and then take responsibility for our own bit of the solution.

Tom Peter’s is one of the giants of leadership thinking – and he makes this same point beautifully in one of his ‘Little Big Things’ videos. Check it out if you have any resonance with these ideas. I use this clip all the time…

It’s important to stress here that we are talking about learning that is active. Not the passive type of learning many of us experienced in our school or college careers! Now I have to come clean here. I was once a Primary school teacher, still lecture at University – and a purveyor of some passive learning on occasion 🙂 However, my experience screams to me that we can do a much better and more efficient job of equipping people to be leaders in our businesses, public services and communities if we help them to understand how people learn (including themselves as developing leaders).

It’s not uncommon to find models such as David Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning cited in leadership development provision. Kolb’s theory, by the way, says little about ‘listening’ as a tool for experiencing ‘the concrete’ and precious little about the importance of interaction with others in the learning process. Some of you may be familiar with De Bono’s Thinking Hats, or Chris Argyris’ Double Loop Learning which are perhaps more useful learning tools. But my proposition here, is that these models and theories are usually used as conceptual tools to explain the process of development rather than as tools for much deeper and extensive engagement with the practice learning for leadership.

There is a wealth of other material that can guide our efforts to become better learners of leadership skills and help us to build stronger collective leadership capacity in our organisations and communities. For example, the work of Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton – New Kinds of Smart; Tim Harford – Adapt; Noreen Hertz – Eyes Wide Open; and Robert J Thomas’ Crucibles of Leadership to name only a few of my own favourite texts.

For now, we might simply challenge ourselves to become more aware of how well we listen to others and reflect on how often we lead conversations with questions before we start telling people what we think they should be doing!

Perhaps ask some friends, family or colleagues how well you listen to their concerns and interests!

Why not watch Tom Peters’ video and then answer this poll…?