The Function of Learning (The Basics, Pt. 4)

Welcome back to The Basics. Check out the posters for the function of learning here.

The Basics Posters - Learning
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Learning is the beginning of the definition: “Leadership is the process of learning…” Learning is not just where we start at leaders, it is the thing that makes us capable of leading. Many leaders believe that they are special because of their successes. This is a myth: nobody is born with special traits or characteristics that make them leaders. In fact, everyone can learn to lead, and all successful leaders have learned to do so through the same process – whether they know it or not.


Learning as a function means that human beings are constantly trying, practicing, and applying behaviors to the situations we experience. The way that we do so – the process – either expands our range of behaviors, or maintains (or even contracts) it. Our successes at any activity we perform, including leadership, are determined by the way we apply the process of learning.


Learning occurs in every member of the group all of the time, but it is unique from the other functions in that learning is our individual responsibility. Only we can decide to learn and perform a new behavior, and even with the authority of a leadership position, we cannot make anyone else behave in a specific manner. We can only change our own behavior, and only we can change our behavior.


However, because everyone is always able to learn, we use our own process of learning to create an environment that allows the members of the group to find, select, and perform behaviors that are productive. We act upon relationships and vision through our learning process: we find new actions that create more productive and effective interpersonal relationships and shared vision within the members of the group. This is how our individual process of learning affects our impact on vision and relationships, and therefore defines the limits of our success as leaders.


If we chose to learn, then we also chose to remove limitations on our leadership.

Learning is inherently uncomfortable. We prefer to use behaviors that we have performed in the past, even if they are not entirely successful. This is why leaders develop leadership styles: they get into ruts. Unfortunately, the range of challenges we will face as leaders means that, no matter how effective our behaviors might have been in the past, our behaviors will inevitably fail in some future situation. We have no choice but to learn, despite the discomfort.


Redefine has a set of tools to make learning both more effective and less uncomfortable. These tools are the learning cycle, the three places to find new behaviors, and the markers of learning. The learning cycle is a way to assess a situation and move from the visible, physical events through explanations of what and why, to generalizations about a better possible outcome, and finally to planning for a new behavior to create that better outcome. This tool ensures we are learning all the way to behavioral change, rather than simply thinking about things. Without behavioral change, our impact upon the world will remain exactly what it always was.


When we recognize that we need a new behavior, we can look in one (or all) of the three places to learn new behaviors. We seek out structured learning in books, videos, or other formal training sources. We model the behavior of others. Or we use trial and error to experiment with new behaviors and refine existing ones.


Each of the three places has challenges in moving from the source of the idea to our performance of the behavior. Structured learning is most difficult because we have to turn an idea or description into a real-world behavior, while modeling is more direct because we can see how another person performs the behavior.


These and other differences between the places make each useful when we understand the best ways to access them. These places to learn surround us, however, so we are limited only by our willingness to see and grab new behaviors.


There are four markers of learning: direction, mistakes, time, and layers. These markers tell us that we are at a specific point in the learning process, and they also tell us what we need to do to continue learning. When we apply them to others’ learning, we can support and lift others up through their discomfort. The learning markers feel like discomfort but are actually very powerful tools when we understand how to recognize them.


Learning, when supported with these tools and working towards behavioral change, allows us to create a leadership practice. This is the sum of leadership behaviors that we can perform and the mental process we use to select the appropriate behavior in each situation. As we learn new behaviors over and over, we increase the breadth and depth of situations in which we can lead effectively.


So many of the theories of leadership are built around a myth that this field is something off limits to normal people, as if leading is a unique and special talent that belongs only to a select few. This belief is not just raw hubris, it prevents capable people from releasing the leadership inside of them. Perhaps that is the point – those who have power want to keep it. But Redefine was created to tear down that myth, because our world is aching for leadership.


Learning is a powerful tool. The process of learning means that the only limits to what we can accomplish is our dedication to growth and our willingness to accept challenges. Our entire world is a source of possible improvements, if we are willing to undertake the effort to learn. Over time, each of us can become the leader that we want to be. When we see how leadership is learned, then we redefine what it means to be a leader.


Seeing Exercise (Finding New Behaviors):


Our seeing exercise for learning is designed to facilitate the places to find new behaviors. Many times, we observe or read about a good leadership tactic, but we fail to turn it into actual behavior at the right time and place. As a result, we miss the opportunity to increase our leadership practice. This exercise is designed to revisit a place to learn that you have already experienced, and turn it into an actual learning moment.


First, pick one of the following from your past experiences (or do this several times, with different inputs):

  1. Think about a leadership book, video, or magazine you read lately – what approach or tactics did it describe that you liked?

  2. Think about a mentor you had, someone who was good a leadership. What is one approach or tactic that he or she used successfully?

For the idea you selected, answer the following questions:

  • In what situation do you want to use this idea? When might this idea be beneficial?

  • What function of leadership does this behavior affect in the group – vision, relationships, or learning?

  • What desired effect do you want to create in the member or members? What response do you expect?

  • What behavior would you normally use in this situation? How are the results of your existing behavior unsatisfactory? How is the new behavior different from your preferred behavior?

Now, plan for your behavioral change.

  • Identify a trigger: how will you know it is time to use the behavior?

  • List the steps, if more than one: what component behaviors (visible, real-world actions) will you perform? What do you look like as you perform the behavior?

  • Describe a successful outcome: how will you know that the behavior worked? What will you see that shows the behavior worked?

Once you have the opportunity to perform the new behavior, revisit this exercise and evaluate your performance. Did the behavior accomplish what you want? If not, or not entirely, how can you adjust the behavior to accomplish your goal?


We have now covered all three functions of leadership. The last session will return to the larger context of the group, leadership, and what is next.

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