You might be saying to yourself: This article isn’t for me. I’m not a learning and development leader.
Hold on right there. If you are in a leadership position in any organization that intends to grow, support its employees, and find success, then you should consider yourself to be a learning leader. Because a learning organization isn’t simply one that develops and offers training.
A learning organization is any company that creates optimal conditions for employees to expand their knowledge, whether that be learning new systems, finding new resources to improve performance, or working together to create a new vision for the future.
Building a learning organization
It’s easy to see why a learning organization is valuable—all of these behaviors lead to employee engagement, increased productivity, and higher profits. But how to become a learning organization is less simple—and it takes exemplary leadership suited specifically for the learning environment.
Peter Senge’s classic five-part model illuminates the characteristics of a learning organization:
- Familiarity with systems thinking
- Encouragement of personal mastery among employees
- An ability to challenge unconscious bias, assumptions, and mental models
- Shared vision
- Faster problem-solving expertise through team learning
These are specific criteria that call upon, but also transcend, typical leadership qualities. Measuring the effectiveness of leadership in such an environment goes beyond evaluating performance or counting the bottom line. It is a complex assessment of the very culture upon which the company is built—the thought processes, beliefs, values, social structures, and knowledge systems of everyone who calls him or herself a member.
Leadership for learning
A review of over 40 years of empirical research aimed at academic organizations (such as schools) has synergy with Senge’s work and builds upon the efforts to create more effective learning cultures by offering a few succinct recommendations for leaders.
- Be a value leader. The review’s authors argue that “the ability to articulate a learning-focused vision that is shared by others and to set clear goals creates a base for all other leadership strategies and actions.” Where do you want your organization to aim? How will you grow? An explicit leadership vision provides clarity and motivation for employees.
- Encourage cooperation. A leader can only be effective insofar that his or her vision is shared by the entire organization. This echoes Senge’s point about systems thinking. It’s a mistake to think that influence only happens in one direction—rather, the entire learning organization is an ecosystem with different variables that are continuously influencing one another.
- Create an adaptive approach. While it would be wonderful if leaders were able to develop particular tools that could be used to resolve any problem, the reality is that the tools must be built after the problem is understood. Demanding more training for employees who are struggling to learn a new system, for example, may sound like a reasonable solution. But if you fail to understand the context of the problem—perhaps the training itself doesn’t match the learning process—then you waste time and effort.
Action items for learning leadership
Senge’s articulation of a learning organization as a complex system is one that has profound implications for every leadership decision. When this is understood, a natural leadership falls into place that supports every aspect of knowledge enhancement—from employee skills and training to the development of external learning offerings.
In short, an effective learning leader must be:
These qualities lay the groundwork for an organization that is flexible, growing, and capable of mastering change when it arises.