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Learning to Lead

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Whilst books and classroom learning can be a part of learning to be a leader, the most important learning is through experience. Leadership is above all a relationship, the learning required to be effective as a leader is as much emotional learning as it is cognitive.


Traditionally leadership development is approached in terms of personality and skill, and case studies can be instructive, however knowing what to do is very different than knowing how to do it. Leadership is a matter of who you are and how you behave as much as what you say.

Experiential leadership development offers a different approach - learning through reflection on one’s actions. Aristotle wrote “the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them”. David Kolb (1975) developed the modern theory of experiential learning drawing on the ideas of the philosopher John Dewey, the sociologist Kurt Lewin and the child psychologist Jean Piaget. He described a 4-step experiential learning process moving from Concrete Experience to Reflective Observation, through Abstract Conceptualisation to Active Experimentation.

Kolb states that in order to gain genuine knowledge from an experience:

  • The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  • The learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  • The learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and
  • The learner must possess decision making and problem-solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

For leadership development to be effective it must include opportunities to experiment with new behaviours, to obtain feedback from others about the impact of these, an opportunity to reflect and learn from these experiences together with others, including perhaps a coach, and finally to try out the results of this learning in real situations.

Unless the changes in behaviour are practised during the leadership programme itself, research suggests they are unlikely to transfer them to their work environment. Research has demonstrated that learning by doing is retained up to 3 times as effectively as passive learning (Saks, A. & Belcourt, M. 2006).

Research by McKinsey suggests that organisations with successful leadership development programmes are 8 times more likely than those with unsuccessful ones to focus on leadership behaviours that are critical drivers of business performance. (Feser, C. 2017) Effective leadership development needs to enable participants to focus on change that matters rather than change that might simply be a good thing, to focus on leadership behaviours that are critical for business performance. The collection of systematic 360° feedback in advance of the programme greatly increases the chances of participants working on the right things.

A useful definition of leadership is the responsible use of power and involves making choices about how to enact one’s values in a group. Identifying some of the deepest “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a precondition of behavioural change. Effective behavioural change must be based on the personal accountability of the individual to others.

Experiential leadership development enables participants to focus on what they need to learn rather than the ideas of others. It needs to provide opportunities for the exercise of authority and power in in real situations in order that participants can subsequently receive feedback on the impact of their behaviours. Experiential leadership development also provides an opportunity to address the often unconscious attitudes and behaviours that can derail effective leadership.

The Advanced Personal Leadership Programme at Henley Business School is an experiential leadership development programme that incorporates many of these features. Leaders need to be able to operate in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty and this programme is therefore quite deliberately not taught, it is totally experiential. Delegates learn by doing leadership rather than talking about it.

Participants spend time working in both small and large group settings, as well as inter-group events, on real challenges requiring the use of leadership behaviours including relationship building, effective influencing, difficult conversations, and conflict management in real situations.

Systematic 360° feedback is collected in advance and fed back at the programme to help leaders identify what it is they need to change. Opportunities are provided to experiment with their leadership style and behaviours, receive real-time feedback and then further opportunities to put their learning into action. The programme includes a follow up day to ensure that new behaviours take root.

The challenges delegates have to manage during the week at Henley enable them to receive feedback and coaching on behaviours, strengths and areas for development. Unstructured, uncertain, and ambiguous by its nature the programme echoes today’s business environment and challenges participants' perception of themselves and others. Its uniqueness lies in the depth of personal exploration that takes place and for many the programme is life changing.

Jon Stokes is Co-Programme Director on the Advanced Personal Leadership Programme.

Feser, C. What’s missing in leadership development. McKinsey Quarterly, August 2017.

Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. in C. Cooper (ed.), Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.

Saks, A. & Belcourt, M. (2006). An investigation of training activities and transfer of training in organizations. Human Resource Management. 45. 629 - 648.

Published 23 November 2017

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