Learning to Lead

(by George Telfer)

“The goal of education is understanding; the goal of training is performance.”
(Frank Bell)

Theories on learning styles and how people learn best can be confusing to an aspiring coach trying to identify ways in which to help their protégées develop. These difficulties need to be understood and overcome in order to achieve higher levels of performance. Learning theorists will claim that any change in behaviour has to be learned and that to understand behaviour we have to understand how people learn. It is important to acknowledge that no single theory on learning has yet to prevail nor has it been developed in a vacuum but through challenging existing and on-going ideas as to how we learn best.

What does this mean in relation to leadership? Probably that it accounts for the wide range of approaches organisations take to develop their leaders. The idea that good leaders should also enable their teams to develop and grow is central to any approach as is the need for managers to encourage self-directed learning and the interdependence in teams where learning can be shared. It is also safe to say, however, that people will learn best when they learn for themselves and leaders serve this idea best by creating the environment that makes learning possible. Without this, any leadership development initiative will prove superficial and relatively short lived.

Theories on learning have contributed to this ‘on-going’ debate for decades. More recently, new theories on learning styles and how people prefer to learn have emerged, adding to the discussion as to how as leaders, coaches and mentors we can enable others to learn more effectively. Early behavioural theorists, such as Pavlov and Skinner demonstrated through their famous laboratory experiments that experience is a critical aspect in learning. Humanistic theorists, such as Carl Rogers, argued however, that people are much more complex than laboratory rats and dogs and challenged this early research, claiming that learning in human beings comes as much from an intrinsic motivation to learn. More recently, writers have even viewed the cognitive processing of our five basic senses as a further vehicle for learning, whilst other learning style models focus on listening, observing, reading, tactility and kinaesthetics.

Until very recently, physiological learning theories claimed that the human brain, specifically the area of the pre-frontal lobe, developed as two separate hemispheres with the ‘left-side’ being the source of a more logical, analytical and objective cognitive process and the ‘right-side’; more intuitive, emotive and subjective. Partly through one's upbringing, early experiences and heridary characteristics, a person could develop more in one way than another, i.e. more logical and controlled or more sensitive and emotive. Although the 'nature versus nurture' debate continues, several leading neurologists, such as Dame Susan Greenfield, now see this as too simplistic a view and more current scientific opinion appears to agree, suggesting that both hemispheres play equally important linking roles in defining human personality characteristics. Furthermore, Carl Jung’s research had earlier distinguished between extroversion and introversion and described how personality itself affected learning and social interaction with his research being adapted and used in several psychometric profiling tools such as the ‘Myers Briggs Type Indicator’ and FIRO B, etc.

Although a logical connection appears to exist between personality and a preferred learning style, good leadership and therefore good coaching is not about putting people in convenient ‘psychological boxes’. Indeed, should we be interested in personality profiling at all? Good coaches and mentors, like good leaders, focus upon behaviour and ultimately performance. They understand the personality of the learner because they know the person. They enable people to become more self-aware, self-controlled and self-confident, not by ‘feeling their psychometric bumps’, but by building trust, rapport and honesty.

Gender may even play a role in the way we learn. Here, there is only limited research but perhaps enough to show that women learn differently from men; there is certainly considerable evidence to show that they are treated very differently in the workplace. We may also develop differently due to culture; with ethnicity, race, language and religion affecting the way we think and behave. Multi-cultural groups in our leadership courses certainly display considerable cultural differences but just as significantly are the emotional and human similarities that tend to emerge when participants are placed in pressure situations and create so many powerful and shared learning experiences. Perhaps this is not too surprising after all, since emotions are the prime drivers in all human behaviour and difficult, if not impossible, to control even at the best of times.

Much of the current thinking on learning has developed from the work of David Kolb who has had a significant impact on the design and development of subsequent learning models. Kolb defines learning as the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience, believing that we learn in a cyclical order, with each process reinforcing the next. His theory was certainly shaped by the earlier research of writers such as Lewin, Vygotsky, Dewey and Piaget and although not without its critics, it remains a compelling proposal to accept experience as an important factor in learning. The principle of learning through experience can even be traced as far back as Lao Tze, the father of Taoism, around 450 BC:

“If you tell me, I will listen. If you show me, I will see. But if you let me experience, I will learn.”

Experiential learning is certainly the key component that provides the missing link between theory and practice and moves learning out of the training room and into the workplace.

Writers on experiential learning have continued to build upon present day theories, almost seamlessly at times, and indeed the literature indicates that there is general agreement with Kurt Lewin’s original principle that every experience modifies the one who undergoes it, yet there still remains considerable discussion as to its interpretation.

Several diagnostic questionnaires have assisted in profiling preferred learning styles with Kolb’s own ‘Learning Style Inventory’ (LSI) being brief and straightforward. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford’s ‘Learning Style Diagnostic Questionnaire’ (LSDQ) is more detailed with personal learning styles more immediately visible. Kolb also noted that the most powerful teams in an organisation would have representatives from all four styles and although there may be some merit in this idea, it also supports his theory a little too conveniently. Surely the priority in choosing teams must be less about learning preferences and more about talent, diversity, attitude and knowledge and experience itself.

Learning style theory also implies that the quality of the learning is contingent with the extent to which any experience relates to a preferred learning style and not all respected writers agree, believing, as Carl Rogers had espoused, that behaviour is also ‘goal orientated’ and learning must have purpose, intention, motivation and choice. It is not clear where these elements fit into experiential learning theory nor account for the part that intuition, instinct and ‘gut feeling’ can play in learning or indeed the effectiveness of those who teach, coach or mentor.

In more practical terms, learning remains a continuous process and we learn in different ways; sometimes more from one experience than from another. Ultimately, learning remains a voluntary decision; as much about attitude as it is about technique and style as is the decision to unlearn. Leo Tolstoy’s thought provoking words may, in themselves, contribute as much to the debate as any of the more academic theorists:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest things cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”


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