Skip to content
Adult students in a classroom.

Transformational leadership learning is vital for leaders who already know a lot about leading but want to go further. What leaders need in order to move from good to great is a wider perspective, increased comfort with ambiguity and greater tolerance for risk-taking, alongside more self-awareness and curiosity, and a more robust sense of self. Unfortunately, too few leadership programmes offer transformational learning that promotes these capabilities.

Transformational learning

The theory of transformational learning was originally proposed by Jack Mezirow, for whom real change for adults only occurs on the back of shifts in mental and emotional perspective, or – more simply – seeing and feeling things in different ways.

To act in the world differently, Mezirow argued, we need to first look at ourselves differently. When we do, what we have always held to be true – our beliefs and assumptions – may be called into question, and that can be challenging. Mezirow talked about ‘disorienting dilemmas’: realizations that if X is true, then Y can’t be.

A good example of a disorienting dilemma is the dynamic often produced when a senior manager moves from managing others to managing managers and they find themselves no longer directly responsible for doing ‘the work’, even for others who do the work. Ultimately, what they are responsible for is how others manage. As a move up the organisational chart, this change is straightforward. The personal emotional and mental journey, however, can be knottier, especially if the manager’s self-esteem is still, even if only subconsciously, bound up in the idea that they are successful only when they exercise their knowledge, skill and expertise directly. Such a situation generates a common tension that many leaders respond to by ‘keeping their hand in’ and overworking, not really letting go of that which gives them a sense of accomplishment. This dynamic never serves organisational growth.

In many cases significant organisational changes, including shifts in leadership roles, are not simple or linear. In the above example, for the change to take root and sustain, the leader will need to learn that they must find other ways to feel accomplished at work. They are bound also to recognize along the way that altering such deep-rooted beliefs will take more than just the accumulation of new information.

The most effective leaders view transformation as distinct from short-term change, and as continuous rather than a single event. This means that they hold a consistent commitment to keep on learning. Not just learning leadership theories, but about themselves and how they respond in different situations, and what impact they have. They constantly seek and embrace disorienting dilemmas. They recognise the need to unlearn and relearn as much as learn. This kind of learning mindset is only ever developed consciously and over time. It can’t be done fast. There is no shortcut.

How can a learning mindset be cultivated?

Leadership development is the process of enabling leaders to build the capability and capacity to engage in the endeavour of learning how to learn so that they and those they lead can transform how they work. Three central components emerge from experience and the literature as essential to cultivating transformational learning mindsets that will endure in the long term.

Leaders who want to cultivate and be part of transformative learning must first start with themselves. It is important to know where you have come from as well as where you are heading, and acknowledge, as Marshall Goldsmith famously formulated, that ‘what got you here won’t get you there.’ It is vital to take a broad, deep, honest look at what has shaped you as a leader. This often starts by getting an objective sense of your leadership strengths and weaknesses through a 360 or psychometric assessment, paired with consciously stepping back and examining the ground you stand on as a leader and what beliefs and values you bring to your role.

Second, you need to be ready to work courageously with peers. Peer-to-peer learning is essential especially when leaders come together in such a way that realize that they are not the only ones struggling with the tensions and dilemmas of high-pressured leadership. Hearing that you are not alone, that you are not the only one who hasn’t worked this stuff out fully yet, can be hugely supportive. Quite often just hearing different perspectives can support the unlocking process and offer genuine insight. We are most likely to engage in transformative learning when we are in environments that visibly encourage and support such learning.

Peer to peer learning.

The third central component is critical reflection. Critical reflection is at the heart of leading in complexity, as well as in any journey of significant personal and organisational transformation. In a rapid and pressured world, it is easy to jump straight from ‘what?’ to ‘now what?’ while missing out on the crucial intermediate step of ‘so what?’ (Questions borrowed from Glenda Eoyang’s Human Systems Dynamics work). Understandably, leaders are often hungry for fast solutions to the myriad problems they encounter, the tool or technique that will make all the difference. But – and this is a huge and often underacknowledged but – transformational learning (as opposed to short-term change-oriented learning) usually requires a significant revision of a very large number of aspects of how you think and behave as a leader. The leap from problem to solution can get you into trouble if you don’t pause, breathe, and consider alternative options. By developing skills of critical reflection among a group of leaders, a sustainable skillset is built that can be used in a variety of the most challenging leadership situations.

Combining individual development, peer-to-peer learning, and critical reflection – in conjunction with leadership and management theory – is the surest way for organisations to develop leadership capability and capacity in an increasingly complex world. When an organisation manages to offer these kinds of leadership development opportunities, systemic leadership development is underway, and the impact is often great.

Leadership is learning

Seen in the ways outlined here, much of what is often termed leadership development falls short of the real need that exists. Leadership development programmes must move from privileging knowledge and expertise to foregrounding exploration and experimentation that is undertaken in a spirit of curiosity and openness. This kind of learning will be slower and more frustrating than learning from a textbook or a TED Talk. You are more than likely to not get it ‘right’ the first time. Transformative learning is iterative, in a leadership context especially so. But connecting with peers, supporting and challenging, getting at tangled questions that prompt disorienting dilemmas – that is what today’s organisations need more people to do more of the time. Progress in that direction starts the moment those things become integral to how you as a leader choose who you want to be in the world.

More Insights

Back To Top