Leading in the Age of Learning

Introduction

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Greg Robinson since the first time he put my friends and me on a low ropes course in middle school. That day I experienced the magic that can be unleashed when a leader has the courage to ask themselves big questions in the presence of their team. I’ve been trying to become as skilled a leader as Greg ever since, and am still on the chase. 

The concepts captured in “Leadership Paradox” are some of the most insightful I’ve found; I’ve pulled it out to reference 3 or 4 times a year for the past decade, usually when I’m on the hunt for clarity in the midst of a leadership crossroads. 

I know the P&PG community will benefit as much as me from hearing from Greg, and hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from A Leadership Paradox: Influencing Others by Defining Yourself (co-authored by Greg Robinson & Mark Rose).

-Luke Freeman

 

Leading in an Age of Learning

An edited excerpt from Greg Robinson and Mark Rose

 We live in a time where leaders need to be responsible for creating conditions in which people can continually learn from and make meaning of their experience. Doing so in the right context and with the right support will promote maturity among those involved.  The first step toward responsible leadership is to develop a clear sense of self. Developing a sense of self is an ongoing process of learning, changing and reframing your view of yourself in relation to the rest of the world. Only then will you possess the clarity and character to promote maturity and health in others.

A Learning Pathway to Mature Leadership

A way for a leader to develop a clear sense of self is to learn to pay attention to the dynamic involved with the interactions around them. We have developed a model that provides a language for this process. It is both a picture of the underlying dynamic involved in learning, change, and differentiation and a description of the core abilities needed to see the path and head down it. This model is based on the work of Peck (1987) and Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers (1998).

Disturbance

Disturbance is the first phase of the learning model. All significant learning begins with a Disturbance. The Disturbance can be external, such as a change in market conditions, a new mandate from above, a stretch goal to reduce cost and increase revenue, or a child turning thirteen. Or it can be an internal stirring of restlessness with the status quo. Regardless of its origin, the Disturbance begins a new cycle of learning and change. In the beginning, a person may only be slightly aware that something new has begun.

There is no guarantee that every Disturbance will lead to learning. It is possible—through years of not paying attention or insensitivity due to fear or busyness—not to notice that something in the internal or external environment is signaling that change needs to occur. Often, the Disturbance is ignored intentionally with the hope that by not giving heed, it will go away. Along with the strategies for quickly relieving the next phase of Chaos, this inattention often paralyzes the learning process. In reality, a Disturbance that is ignored will only return in a much louder form.

Chaos

Once there is awareness that something is beginning to take shape, a period of uncertainty will most likely be experienced. This uncertainty signals the beginning of the second phase of the learning model called Chaos. It is the discomfort that comes when you know that change is necessary but the new vision has not yet become clear. Depending on the perceived intensity of the learning process, Chaos may be no more than a momentary hesitation while you gather yourself and establish a new sense of direction. On the other hand, Chaos may approach what is often described as “a dark night of the soul.” These moments of self-searching can provide the springboard to an entirely new way of seeing yourself in the world.

As with Disturbance, the experience of Chaos does not always lead to change. For many, the messiness of the Chaos phase is too threatening. An automatic, reactive response to such an experience is to relieve the immediate discomfort. Those seeking quick relief are hoping for a leader to come and make things right. In the absence of such a hero, they will also blame those who do not rescue them. Often, this is the place at which leaders become sidetracked in their role. Leaders can become overly sensitive to their own or others’ discomfort and eliminate the hope of lasting change in exchange for enjoying momentary relief. Progress will not be made, however, if feeling comfortable takes precedence over developing maturity and growth. 

Letting Go

Letting Go is the most critical work in the entire process and the third phase in the learning model. Disturbance will come and go without consent, and Chaos will emerge from unawareness. But Letting Go involves making a choice. Letting Go does not mean that we can or should throw away experience, ideas, preferences, or assumptions. Letting Go is a loosening of the grip we hold on certain things. The failure to loosen the grip and consider the possibilities of new perspectives will result in a tyranny of the Chaos from which you are seeking refuge. Learning occurs in an open space in which listening and being influenced are freely chosen. Isaacs captures the essence of this well when he says, “It is the ability to let go, to ‘suspend’ our certainty, the rigid opinion we may have formed about something, to see things from another point of view (Isaacs, 1999).”

Letting Go is the first step in being intentional about what we think and the actions those thoughts generate. It is fundamentally more of an emotional process than a cognitive one. Thinking and feeling are no longer allowed to be fused. What you feel is not necessarily reality. Letting Go is refusing to let fear determine who you are. It is not the answer, but it sets the stage for finding more answers, both individually and collectively.

Since Letting Go is the decisive step between never-ending spirals of Chaos and Learning, growth, and maturity, it is important to understand exactly what a person is letting go of. Although this list is not exhaustive, learning is served when we are able to let go of our comfort, our certainty, and our need for control.

As an emotional process, Letting Go is a willingness to give up the need for comfort in order to be open to something new.  This need for comfort creates a quick-fix mentality. Those who cannot or will not endure discomfort long enough to learn and take responsibility for their lives will choose to believe in a “magical answer”—a solution that will bring immediate relief without the requisite work of learning and choosing for themselves. 

Closely related to the need for comfort is the need for certainty, which could also be thought of as the need to be right. Again, Learning is about slowing down and reflecting on successes and failures in order to create a deeper sense of the meaning of the world around us. This cannot happen when you are focused on being right. Finally, there is the need for control. What makes this a poisonous element is that the need for control is never just about taking responsibility for yourself; instead, it is the illusion that a person can and should control the environment, all circumstances, and all the people who make up their world. As the attempts to control or form others in your own image increase, so does the amount of reactivity and anxiety in the system. Learning will not occur in such violent conditions. On a deeper level, it is apparent that the need to control others is an attempt to somehow heal yourself by fixing others. The emptiness that people experience and their basic mistrust of their own value make them depend on others for validation. Often, they expect that validation to be revealed by others agreeing with them, following their cue as to what is right and wrong and seeing things as they see things. 

Consequently, the need for comfort, certainty, and control becomes a deeply inhibiting force, keeping learning at bay. If I need others to validate me, I cannot move on until I convince them that I am right. This is a dead-end road because I am not focusing on myself but on changing them. Peck (1987) identifies healing and converting as a perceived quick fix out of Chaos. I cannot feel good about myself until someone else feels good about me. Letting Go of all this illusion will allow me to enter a place of space in which there is a feel of openness. I do not require others to be like me but only that they become more clear themselves.

Learning

The last phase of the model is Learning which must be understood as something other than accumulating and assimilating new information. Learning is taking the necessary steps to reclaim your identity. No longer will you allow fear to define who you are. This type of change leads people to understand their true sources of value. At its core, this kind of Learning is concerned with three characteristics: awareness, intentionality, and increased coherence. These terms infer the attitude that is necessary for Learning. They also speak to what exactly you are trying to change—to learn and unlearn. This process of continuous change and learning is what ultimately leads to health and sustainability. Consequently, when critical masses of individuals are capable of practicing this type of learning, a system will arise based on freedom rather than fear.

Learning can be thought of as an act of awakening. Awareness begins with clarity around the assumptions that result in decisions made and actions taken. It is only with this level of thinking that new possibilities can arise. Without such awareness, new practices will only be different forms of the old ones. Or worse, existing practices will continue, guided by automatic and unconscious strategies. Awareness of assumptions—both individual and collective—leads to gaining a more complete picture of what is and greater clarity about what might be.

Waking up is important but not enough. Becoming attentive to what is and what might be has value only if this insight leads to action. As people become more aware, they can be more purposeful with their actions. In this sense, intentionality increases. Intentionality is both an increased sense of choice and a decreased level of reactivity.

Awareness and intentionality finally result in an increased coherence, which is the third characteristic of Learning. Coherence is learning to see what one cannot see on their own.  Our understanding grows by allowing different perspectives to influence our thinking.  

Conclusion

This brings the discussion full circle to a whole new set of Disturbances that set in motion a new learning adventure. Stability is the paradoxical result of continual change. Learning promotes maturity. Maturity begets responsibility. Responsibility reveals choice. Choice is freedom—one based not on fear but on faith and acceptance. Leaders will find it easier to lead and followers will find it easier to follow in a place such as this.

Sources

  1. S. Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Touchstone, 1987)
  2. Wheatley and M. Kellner-Rogers, “Bringing life to organizational change,” Journal for Strategic Performance Measurement, (1998): 5-14. 
  3. Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Th inking Together (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

 

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