When thinking back over years of consulting, coaching and mentoring on Leadership in a variety of organizational and personal contexts, there are a number of observations that truly stand out. Some as conspicuous by presence; like the old science (e.g., Taylor, Skinner, et al.) of hierarchical command and control models that many organizations still use to “manage the business” and the value of each position it promotes. Others, however, as conspicuous by absence; like the new science (e.g., Deming, Kohn, et al.) of leadership as a means of improving the operating culture and effectiveness in many organizations and the value of each person it promotes.
Unfortunately, our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn, organizationally and personally, falls into the conspicuous by absence category of stand-out observations. And I can’t say this without feeling some level of sincere trepidation. Having moved through 41 different professional and social leadership roles, including 31 unique positions with 16 organizations spanning 12 career fields and seven industries in the commercial sector and 10 positions with seven organizations in the national defense and non-profit sectors, I’ve had to contend with more than a “fair share” of learning, unlearning and relearning over the past 30 years. To say it was hard or that I hadn’t always been successful in the endeavor would be gross understatements.
In reality, this learn-unlearn-relearn cycle has proven, at times, to be extremely difficult…I’ve got the scars to prove it. But it is also indispensable to changing, growing and leading in our fields (as individuals) and in the competitive marketplace (as organizations).
Between the three, the most difficult, by far, is unlearning…really letting go of old habits, outdated theories, flawed assumptions/ biases, etc. Tragically, it also happens to be the most useful. Unlearning enables us to take new information–most times running contrary to what we already believe and, if it is about us, coming in the form of feedback that isn’t very flattering or gratifying–and use it to relearn, change our behavior or improve our performance. Otherwise, we continue to learn new things without ever unlearning (e.g., abandoning the old), and this creates a real quandary when the new information is incompatible or irreconcilable. At best, we relearn nothing at all or, at worst, we complicate and confuse things by introducing incongruity. Here’s just one example of how this plays out with leadership, both personal and organizational:
- Personal Leadership Context: We attend a great seminar, read a great book, even listen to an inspirational, motivational speech but we don’t take it personally and fail to act in any meaningful or demonstrable way to produce a change in our leadership.
- Organizational Leadership Context: We cherry-pick a new method or model for leadership that conflicts with an old method or model and simply add it to the mix, never removing the old model.
Myriad examples exist in both contexts, but there’s no room to include them here. Anyone beyond their formal academic years who has dared to challenge their beliefs and assumptions about management and leadership will know first hand how difficult and important unlearning is, so it likely doesn’t warrant further explanation. Perhaps Chuck Swindoll captured it best when he said something to this effect in one of his epic sermons a few years back: it takes only four years to get a college education but forty years to get over it or, if you please, it is just as offensive to be around someone who never changes their mind as someone who never changes their clothes.
This is why Lifelong-Learning is the first step in the LIFE-cycle of Leadership Enrichment. I’ll reveal the other 3 steps in future posts, but for now I’d like to offer of few hints to fellow travelers on how to increase your capacity for learning, unlearning and relearning:
- Elevate your Awareness. Enabled by alertness and emboldened by curiosity, awareness ensures we are able to understand our situation, identify the right target/ goals and achieve learning on purpose. It is the means by which we perceive (to mentally understand using the powers of reason) and recognize “new information.” This will open the door to learning and then acceptance, as a vital part of unlearning.
- Increase your Openness — to — Learning. As we become aware of new information regarding our leadership and the leadership in your organization, we can use this scale at The Hendricks Institute to evaluate where our thinking is currently positioned. It will help us make the transition/ commitment moves that shift our learning away from “stonewalling, explaining, justifying, withdrawing, blaming” toward acceptance and, ultimately, into unlearning and relearning.
- Adopt the PDSA Learning Cycle. This “…systematic series of steps for gaining valuable learning and knowledge” begins by formulating a theory. Being guided by theory is incredibly important because it helps us to frame the right questions up-front…questions about how this new information compares with your current level of thinking. Moving through the PDSA yields the answers to those questions and provides more forgiveness in the learning, unlearning and relearning effort because we can ultimately “…adjust the goal, change methods or even reformulate a theory altogether.”
Taken in order, these three simple strategies can help you learn, unlearn and relearn on a continual basis, which will kick-start your leadership enrichment. But it doesn’t come without risk. You’ll be: (a) forced to confront congenital blindness to your own defects; (b) tempted to take short-cuts, pick only low-hanging fruit and superficially address the real issues; and (c) tied to old paradigms that establish and define clear boundaries and reinforce your current behavior inside those boundaries. That said, it also comes with its share of rewards…not the least of which is your potential for becoming a real leader, having a more constructive impact on others, and improving the organizational context/ operating culture that emerges to produce overall effectiveness.