Mastery of Self – Our Learning Preference

Learning to lead starts with learning how to lead ourselves. Our own habits and rituals will determine to a large extent how effective a leader we become and a good place to start understanding this, is by looking at how our habits and rituals are formed.

Habits are themselves a result of a learning journey that is worth a moment of reflection. The journey starts with ‘unconscious incompetence’ where we don’t know what we don’t know. This is a state of happy ignorance, where the fact we do not know something really doesn’t bother us at all. Let’s face it, the things we don’t know we don’t know is a potentially infinite list, we simply don’t know. Typically something happens in our lives that jerks us out of this happy state into a state of ‘conscious incompetence’, we now know we don’t know. This is a far more worrisome state to be in and many who reach this stage of the learning journey yearn for the good old days of ‘unconscious incompetence’, others use the realisation as motivation to learn.

The journey from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’, where we now know we know but still have to think about it, is where training and learning enter the journey. Recent psychological research has cast doubt on the previously held belief that we all learn best if we learn using our preferred learning style. There are four primary learning styles: Activists – who learn by doing things; Pragmatists – who learn best when the topic is directly relevant to their day-to-day challenges; Theorists – who learn best by reference to proven study and research and finally; Reflectors – who learn best when they are given the time to think about and internalise the subject or task in hand. The research argues that whilst we do show a personal preference for one of the four primary learning styles, they way we learn is far more attuned to the topic we are learning than to our preferred learning style.

This makes sense when you think about it. For example it is unheard of for parents to send their children to ‘learn how to walk’ workshops and classes. Parents recognise that this complicated skill is best learnt through an Activist approach, it is after all how they learned to do it. Parents first get down on the floor with the child and work at their level, they make it safe and then fun to learn through plenty of positive encouragement and laughter and then eventually we all learn how to walk. If only we could apply some of these lessons in the way we teach leadership.

When it comes to learning to lead it is rarely that simple! For a start we shroud the topic in hierarchy, mystery and models. Competency frameworks and assessment centres abound and there are shelves full of leadership books, with academics, consultants, trainers and past leaders all weighing in with their perspectives, experiences and insights. This is all great stuff and there is lots for the Theorists and Reflectors to absorb. Yet I have a fundamental belief that learning to lead is like learning to walk, it is best done using the Activist and Pragmatist styles, despite our personal preference.

Changing a habit starts with recognising a need to do so. We first need to become ‘consciously incompetent’ and then we need the motivation and the will to change. Many stay in denial and persist with the old habit, it is after all a lot easier to do, even if by doing so we do not get the results we want. For those of us that want to change then there needs to be a ‘trigger’ or ‘pattern interrupt’ to stop the old habit and start the new. This trigger has to be personal to us and has to work, so it needs some considered thought. For example, when I wanted to cut down my weekday alcohol intake I moved the wine/beer from the fridge and kitchen cupboard to a top shelf in the garage. When I wanted to learn to listen more effectively I started to put my hand over my mouth when others were talking and focussed on breathing more slowly, I found this worked for me.

Leadership is a contact sport, it requires action to be taken it cannot be mastered simply by thinking about it. Learning to lead ourselves is the starting point for this journey. Try taking an unproductive habit and start to change it and you will soon discover how challenging this can be. But persevere, as the result will be worth it and the learning you will get from trying to change will be very insightful and will help you learn how to lead others which is the next phase of the leadership learning journey.

If you need any help with this then please contact me I will be delighted to help.