August 9, 2014

Jamie Billingham

Leading by Learning

Great leaders all have one thing in common. They love to learn. For some it’s in their DNA. Others have learned from experience that the route to becoming better, more effective leaders, is through learning from everything and everyone, every day. Either way the best leaders are prolific learners.

Learning in Perpetuity

Although definitions can vary, most agree that learning is a process, not a state. It’s the process of understanding the why, how and what of a subject or issue. In complex environments like public education, learning must be at the very least ongoing, dynamic and adaptive. At it’s best learning becomes a generative process. This is the kind of learning that makes leaders more effective.

Effective Leaders

Kouzes and Posner identify ten essential lessons that leaders must learn. One of those lessons is that learning increases leaders’ effectiveness. In other words, the more time you spend learning, the better your ability to lead. Effective leaders make it a deliberate part of their practice to:

  • spend time reading
  • communicate with other
  • experiment with new ways of doing things
  • reflect on their own leadership behaviors
  • ask more questions (and perhaps better questions)
  • don’t assume they know everything
  • aren’t afraid to admit mistakes
  • ask for feedback, and when they get it say “thank you” and accept it as a gift, whether the feedback is positive or negative
  • Encourage others to experiment, take risks and accept failure by asking “what can we learn?”

These practices create the optimal environment for learning. To create this environment requires a flexible mindset, an open attitude and a willingness to be vulnerable. Leaders who embrace this way of being lean towards a collaborative style and are more likely to inspire others to lead. They are also more likely to experience and promote generative learning.

Generative Learning

Generative learning is grounded in anticipating what might be and inviting those affected to participate in the learning process. Effective leaders create a learning organization by facilitating and embracing generative learning. In this way they can also create and support a learning community.

Generative learning is a creative process that requires “systemic thinking,” “shared vision,” “personal mastery,” “team learning,” and “creative tension” between the vision and the current reality. Peter Senge

Senge also suggests that the leader’s role is that of a learning designer, a teacher, and a steward who can cultivate shared vision and challenge faulty mental models. Leaders are responsible for building organizations – and communities – where people are continually expanding their capabilities to shape their future – that is, leaders are responsible for learning.

Community Learning

Nothing is more generative than learning from and with your community. Effective, collaborative leaders know this. They create opportunities to connect to and collaborate with their communities and stakeholders because they know that many diverse minds are better than a few specialized minds.

They also know that community support is critical and that people support that which they are involved in. Knowing this, successful leaders actively seek out community sentiment to identify and frame problems and to inform solutions.

Effective leaders use collaborative or shared inquiry, reflection and dialogue to increase their own understanding. They also use these practices to create the conditions that allow their organization to learn. In public organizations, like school districts, the entire community can experience generative learning – with the right leadership.

Interestingly, as human beings we are the only species on earth capable of generative learning. This is a uniquely human type of learning that has emerged from our sociality and our ability to communicate complex ideas, thoughts and emotions. Leaders who embrace this kind of deeply collaborative learning continually and effectively recreate themselves, their organizations and their communities. More importantly these are the leaders who in leading by learning create and maintain organizations and communities that are able to thrive in changing times.

Leading by Learning

At ThoughtExchange we support leaders who are driven to learn from, and with, their organizations, their communities, and their stakeholders. These are the leaders who value group insight and know that the road to success is paved by, collaboratively building learning communities.

As a collaborative leader, how have you embraced learning as the way to lead?

Jamie Billingham
Specialties: Learning and Technology, Curriculum and Instructional Design and Development, Leadership, Organizational Learning, Systems Thinking, Group Facilitation.

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