Leadership As A Learning Activity

Nicholas Conigrave

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.

Leo Tolstoy

There is a quip in management consulting circles that ‘change is the new constant’. While change has always been part of the human experience, the speed and volume of change required of us to continue to adapt and thrive feels new, given the current state of the world: we need to change how we socialise due to COVID-19; we need to change the way we live if we are to avoid the catastrophes of climate change; and we need to change the way we educate our children to meet the needs of the ‘societal, economic and work contexts in which schools operate’ (Masters, 2022). We need to change the way we work to better adapt to the rapidly changing technology landscape.

However, we know change is hard. It is often cited (be it somewhat contested) that 70 per cent of change programs in organisations fail to deliver on expectations (McKinsey).3 Kegan and Lahey (2009) tell the story of the difficulty of change as follows.

Not long ago a medical study showed that if heart doctors tell their seriously at-risk heart patients they will literally die if they do not make changes to their personal lives – diet, exercise, smoking – still only one in seven is actually able to make the changes.

One of the reasons that we find change hard as adults is that it requires us to learn. Change requires us to learn new ideas, perspectives, skills, competencies and ways of relating. To change the world we live in, we need to change ourselves at the same time. Argyris defines learning  as ‘the identification and correction of errors’ (Argyris, 2002). When I have used this definition in my leadership development practice with clients, they generally wince in discomfort. As Argyris says, identifying your errors can be ‘potentially embarrassing, or threatening’. So, as leaders of organisations we know that we need to learn our way forward (Hannon and Peterson, 2021) if we are to thrive in the 21st century – and yet we know learning is hard. This leads me to a concerning observation that the learning we need to adapt effectively in these changing times is conspicuous by its absence in organisations today.


Centre for Strategic Education, CSE Leading Education Series.

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