Changing Paradigms: From Leadership to Learning

Right now, change is the only consistent in our world. Old jobs are out, new jobs are in. The nature of work is shifting. It’s no longer just a matter of earning a wage (although this is the case for some), many of us are seeking purpose and impact in our work.

As leaders, if we are to succeed in this ever-changing world, then we need to continuously learn; adapting to the shifting circumstances and responding to the individuals before us. Even more so, we need to foster learning organisations that can equally adapt and thrive as the landscape changes.

Now this may seem like an easy task, after all, in some ways we were born to learn - we learnt to walk, to talk, to read, to write etc., but how conscious were we in this process of learning? Part the reason why our species has been so successful is because the human brain is primed for learning. However, a lot of our learning occurs at a very surface level (almost unconsciously), absorbing information as we are exposed to it as opposed to actively engaging with it.

In addition, for whatever reason, when some enter leadership they trade their learning hats for what they believe are leadership hats, a perception that they are now expected to be the source of knowledge. Yet, it is these leaders who we often see struggle to achieve any sustainable change toward a greater purpose.

How liberating would it be if we viewed ourselves first and foremost as learners?

And…what if we were actively aware of ourselves as learners and could adjust our approach for success accordingly? How much could we achieve then?

Not surprisingly, these questions underpin a common conversation that I have with leaders. It is as if we operate within a ‘box’, a paradigm of pre-conceived beliefs of what a leader SHOULD DO as opposed to what a leader COULD DO.

Here’s a typical example;

Recently I had a conversation with a middle-manager who I’ll refer here in as Abby. In the conversation, Abby indicated that a couple of her team members had queried a long-standing process. She specified that she did her best to explain and justify the process to her team members, but came to realise she didn’t fully understand the justification herself. As a result, she left her team members with the only answer she could – this process has been in place for some time. When I asked Abby “did you think about seeking clarification yourself?”, she responded that as she was in a position of leadership, she didn’t want to ask her line-manager as she was afraid of appearing as if she couldn’t do her job.

My interest in the interaction between beliefs and learning behaviours (alongside my contracted role at this particular organisation to support the development of leaders) meant that I couldn’t (nor did I want to) just let this conversation slide. We discussed the evidence between help-seeking behaviours and high achievement, and how our implicit beliefs can manifest as fear and limit us from fulfilling our roles to the best of our abilities. I was curious to further understand what drove Abby’s actions, and wanted to encourage her to view the situation from a place of learning, so I carefully inserted the following questions into our conversation:


  •  “If you had a better understanding of the process, would this make it easier to explain and justify the process to others?”
  • “If you don’t ask the question of your superiors (regarding the process), who will?
  •  “Just because this process has been in place for a long time, how do you know it is still the best process for here and now?”


It was a fantastic conversation. What pleased me most is that the conversation resulted in learning action. Abby organized a meeting with her superiors to gain clarity around this process, and as it turns out, the line-manager himself didn’t feel it was the right process and it has since sparked a review.

Obviously, this is only a brief window into our need to engage as learners first and foremost. Had this leader approached the situation from a place of curiosity and critical thinking (two key characteristics of highly effective learners), her team members would have received accurate information regarding the process and their positive learning behaviours would have been acknowledged. It would have also improved her relationship and connection with her team members and perhaps more importantly, fostered critical minds within her team. With heightened awareness, Abby could have modeled her own learning behaviours - an effective method for enhancing the learning behaviours of others, and moved her team and the broader organisation closer to developing as a learning organisation. The list of positive outcomes could go on.

At the core of my conversations with leaders (like Abby) is a concept called ‘self-regulated learning’, a process of conscious learning. I recently spoke on this concept at the Secondary Education leadership forum in Sydney, where I highlighted the importance of self-awareness and how influential we can be (as leaders) when we are aware of ourselves as learners. It’s about combining a high-quality knowledge of the strategies of effective learners and high achievers with an acute and sharpened awareness for selecting, monitoring and modifying the strategies along the way.

The problem that exists is that many of us aren’t consciously aware of ourselves as learners, don’t possess high quality knowledge of effective learning strategies, and haven’t redesigned the ‘box’ – the paradigm of beliefs from which we operate. The good news is that all these elements can be changed, developed or in other words, learnt. Like most behaviour change, we have to start by bringing awareness to ourselves as learners and we can achieve this through a number of different ways. I’d like to leave you with a couple of strategies for developing self-awareness that I’ve discovered along my own learning journey that might work for you:

Using a Dictaphone to ‘think-aloud’ is an effective way to record your thoughts in an instant-fashion. ‘Think-aloud’ protocols as they are known formally are also well evidenced as a method to develop self-awareness, but they do take a little time to get used to. Thinking aloud… is just that - thinking aloud. In the case of developing as a self-regulated learner, if you record yourself thinking aloud as you engage with a task and then review it, you can achieve a deeper insight into how your mind works when learning (any potential barriers, drivers, patterns of behaviours etc.).

Keeping a journal may seem old hat, but research argues this is still a highly effective way to increase self-awareness. Free-flow writing doesn’t suit all, so creating prompts (e.g. questions) to guide your reflection and planning may help.

To help get you started, here's some prompts you might like to try....

1.     What's one scenario from my day/week where I could have shifted my perspective from leading to learning?

2.     How could I have approached this scenario differently with a learning mindset?

3.     Is there something I can still do to apply this mindset to this situation? If so, do it and document the outcomes and your learnings. 


Shyam Barr


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Shyam Barr helps people become better learners (as he believes learning underpins success in both work and life). Between working as a consultant, coach and speaker, he is also currently completing a Ph.D in the field of cognitive psychology.
Twitter: @shyambarr