The Learning Leader

woman holding hand to chin, thinking

I think a lot about learning. I suppose that is because learning is central to what I do as a professor. I wonder how people learn. I am intrigued by the different levels of learning. There is superficial learning that is easy because it does not challenge our core assumptions. Then there is deep learning that is difficult because it challenges our self conception.

How we learn should be a concern of all leaders. Learning, helping others learn, and helping your organization learn are all foundational responsibilities of a leader.

Learning begins with observation. Often, when people hear the word “learning,” they think of reading. Reading is one way to observe but there is much more to it than that. Testing whether a student can reproduce the words of a book is not a good way to test whether or not that student has learned. Learning begins with observation and that can take many forms. It involves using all the senses in a focused and proactive manner. This differs greatly from trudging through life and letting events and circumstances push us and pull us this way and that.

Observaton means asking ourselves: “What do I see here?” It’s about noticing: noticing colors, smells, movements, and behaviors. For example, I notice a man at the bus station. He just went out the door without taking his hands out of his pockets. Instead, he used his stomach to push the lever that releases the catch to open the door. Why did he do that? I ask a group of students to work on a project together in class and then step out of the room. I can hear them inside vigorously discussing their options. When I open the door however, I noticed they become quiet and their communication with each other becomes whispers. Why is this happening? What are the driving forces leading to this behavior? I want them to feel comfortable to speak openly in my presence. How can I facilitate an environment where that can take place?

Leaders are always asking questions like this. They want to learn. And they want to help others learn.

Learning is the opposite of the lethargic, meandering, purposeless state of passive existence, never growing, never curious, never exploring unknown territory, never learning. That is not the behavior of a leader.

Learning is about taking the moment, the experience, the crisis, the joy, the sadness, and asking yourself: “What does this mean?” “How did it happen?” “What went wrong?” “What went right?” “How can I repeat this experience?” “How can I avoid it?” What additional information do I need to understand what happened? “What should I note so I can improve this experience?” “What are the invisible forces at work driving this experience?” “What are the assumptions being made?” “What generalizations should I question?” “What is the root problem or problems?”

Learning does not end with observation; it only begins there. But, if we don’t begin we can never end. If we don’t observe, we can never learn. If we don’t learn, we can never improve. When we don’t improve, we become pawns of circumstances, rather than protagonists in the great story of life. Theoretical Physicist, Brian Greene, wrote:

The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers.[1]

As leaders, we must become experts in learning! We must be honest with ourselves and ask the question: “Am I a learner?” Don’t answer that question too fast; remember, deep learning requires complete honesty with yourself. Are you willing to have your fundamental assumptions challenged? Or do you repress the observations of others? When we do that, we repress both their learning and also our own. We also repress the learning of the organization. If I am not learning, and I don’t allow my associates to learn, then the organization cannot learn. If the organization fails to learn, it soon becomes a relic of past glory having died in the shadow of its own rusty broken remains.

I want to learn. I want to learn about learning. And I want to help the organization to become a learning organization. It begins with slowing down, looking around, and asking questions about what I see.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at] to discuss the needs of your organization.

Sources Cited
Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 1999.

Photo by Gadini. Photo available at Pixabay under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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