Teaching Smart People to Become Better Leaders

Clark.Kathy Kathy Clark November 16, 2020

Success in the workplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most smart people don’t know how to learn and solve problems more effectively.

Let me explain. I’ll bet the individuals in key leadership positions within your organizations are smart, MBA-wielding, goal oriented, highly committed, awesome problem-solvers. But just because they are well educated and experienced, doesn’t mean they are good at learning. Success these days increasingly depends on more than education and expertise. It depends on the ability to thoughtfully learn. More specifically, it depends on the ability to look inward, reflect critically on the way you explore and define the problems you and your organization face, to go beyond your go-to problem solving approaches, and change the way you think.

Well-known business thought leader Chris Argyris called this double loop learning. Here’s an analogy he once used to illustrate the term:

A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, “Why am I set at 68 degrees?” and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double-loop learning.

Let’s be realistic. We know complex problems exist in workplaces everywhere, and leaders are challenged to solve them quickly and effectively. The desire for ready solutions and taking action can be a barrier to learning and innovation. Often, the way to fix today’s complex problems rests on more than simply solving them quickly. It is up to today’s leaders to model learning to others, to reflect on their own behavior and consider whether the way they tend to solve problems might, in fact, be limiting the ability to define those problems differently and as a result, arrive at better, longer lasting solutions.

Many of the consultants and executives I’ve known have experienced success in their lives. They haven’t really missed the mark too often or have felt the shame and guilt that usually go along with failure, which means they have also never developed a tolerance for feeling failure or the skills to deal with those feelings. Put simply, Argyris says, “because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the blame on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely when they need it the most.”

But this is something Executive Agenda (EA) helps with. We work with executives on this very thing. In our groups, we focus on issues or opportunities that our members are accountable for solving within a variety of industries and organizations. We look at the problem from many different perspectives, harnessing the power of the group to pick the issue or opportunity apart through thought-provoking questions and honest dialogue. This deep examination leads to more diverse insights and more effective solutions. At some point, the conversation always shifts, and members begin to reflect on how they think about a problem, how they react to it and how they reason about their behavior. And then, we are double loop learning.

Helping smart people learn
Enabling learning among highly trained, clear-eyed, good-thinking, successful leaders takes persistence. But it absolutely happens. You have to get started by looking inward to discover why you might become defensive or behave the way you do – a pretty typical focus of organizational learning and continuous improvement programs. Teaching people how to reason about their behavior in new and more effective ways breaks down the defenses that block learning.

Executive Agenda attracts members from diverse organizations, professions and backgrounds. They come to EA group meetings knowing they will have an opportunity to share in a confidential space where everyone is dedicated to learning. We help each other reconcile the way we think we are acting and the way we are really acting. There’s variety in thinking that would not happen organically if it weren’t for groups with the perspective of many different experiences, industries and organizational cultures. No one is embarrassed by their limitations because we know defensive reasoning blocks learning while productive reasoning gives us the energy and the opportunity we need to critically reflect on and then change their own practices in order to meet today’s challenges. Each EA group builds a high level of trust and respect for each other. With that as a foundation, we question each other’s reasoning. It’s a respectful way to become better, learn to learn and learn to lead.

The upshot to all of this? Organizations are more effective when there’s deep learning, flexibility and openness and when there are options for adapting to “problematic” situations. When smart people are taught how to learn, they will have an even bigger impact on the performance of their entire organization. Polishing up your self-awareness and your reasoning skills helps solve problems, of course, but also develops a deeper, more textured understanding of the problem itself. Are you ready to learn?


About the Author
Kathy Clark has served as a SE Wisconsin Group Chair (Executive Mentor) since 2019 and serves two EA groups (EA 7 and EA 18), representing a broad base of professionals from Sheboygan Falls, Grafton, Slinger, Milwaukee, Racine, Lake Geneva, Elkhorn, Delafield and Watertown. Her passion for adult learning theory, strategy management and systems thinking started at Northwestern Mutual in the early 2000s and has grown into a lifelong career in business and non-profit leadership. Her strengths include strategic planning, system dynamics for advanced strategy development, strategy alignment, performance management and cost-effective operations. The importance of continuous improvement and double loop learning are guiding principles for her.

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