• Phil Cole

The Function of Learning (Part 4, The Basics)

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 as 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 it 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. There are two ways that this occurs in organizations.


When members of the group have a clear shared vision and supportive relationships, they use learning to seek out new ways to perform work. This is how organizations become more effective, efficient, and excellent. Leadership's responsibility is to create an environment that allows the members of the group to find, select, and perform behaviors that are productive. We support this learning so that members of the group can accomplish more than they would without leadership.

The second way learning affects an organization is our personal learning process to be more effective leaders. This is different from the other functions in that learning to lead is our individual responsibility. Only we can decide to perform a new behavior.


We act upon relationships and vision through our learning process: we find new actions that create more productive and effective interpersonal relationships and new actions that share the story of vision. This is how our individual process of learning affects all three functions of leadership within the group, and therefore increases excellence within the group.


Our personal learning defines our success as leaders. If we chose to learn, then we also chose to remove limitations on our leadership.


However, there is one big hurdle for both the group and our personal learning: change is uncomfortable.


All human beings prefer to use behaviors that they 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.


The same is true of the group. Members will avoid change, and the learning it requires, if the discomfort of that change is greater than their desire to improve. Without a strong shared vision and supportive relationships to minimize this discomfort, members are likely to perform their work in the way it has always been done, even if that isn't the best way.


That's where we come in. 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 generalize about a better possible outcome, and finally to plan 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 all the time, 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, 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 great leadership is somehow 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 are 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.


The SEEING EXERCISE Finding New Behaviors helps us practice learning from the places to find new behaviors by re-examining old learning opportunities.


We have now covered all three functions of leadership. The last article in this series returns to the larger context of the group, leadership, and what is next.

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This SEEING EXERCISE reveals the natural, ongoing, and distributed functions without leadership's intervention.