Executive Leadership: The Learning Style of Leaders

  • 8 mins read

What is your learning style?

Depending on when you attended school, you may have been tested and/or identified as a particular type of learner: the way you process and retain information. Typically, most children learn through the five senses, including seeing, hearing, touching, and doing/moving (which can include tasting/smelling). As adults, we bring depth of experience and greater self-awareness to our learning.

The theory of learning styles is not new and has evolved since it was introduced in the 70s by social psychologist David A. Kolb. According to Kolb, our styles are based on genetics, experiences, and current environment.

With his colleague Ron Fry, Kolb identified a four-stage experiential learning cycle:

  1. Observation of concrete experiences
  2. Reflection and interpretation of observations (creation of hypothesis)
  3. Formation of abstract concepts (generalizations)
  4. Testing of new concepts in different situations

Learning Preferences

Kolb and Fry posit that learning preferences are based on two continuums:

  1. Active experimentation <> Reflective observation
  2. Abstract conceptualization <> Concrete experience

When combined, the two dimensions create four learning styles:

  1. Converger (Active & Abstract) This type of learner is known for their practical application of ideas.
  2. Accommodator (Active & Concrete): This type of learner is Known for its agility and adaptability. It is an active, risk-taking doer.
  3. Assimilator (Reflective & Abstract): This type of learner is known for their research and planning abilities and excels at creating theoretical models.
  4. Diverger (Reflective & Concrete): This type of learner is often the most creative. They are known for their ability to see the big picture and create meaning.

Understanding learning styles can help us become better leaders. However, we can achieve greater success personally and professionally by learning how to think and learn in new ways. When we limit ourselves to a particular type of learner, we can miss learning opportunities and important lessons, both critical to reaching our full potential as leaders.

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Debunk the Myths of Learning Styles

One of the most widely accepted learning style theories is that everyone (including children and adults) has a specific aptitude for processing different types of information and instruction. Perhaps this explains why over 70 models have been created since Kolb and Fry began their work, including Neil Fleming’s VARK model: visual, auditory, read/write, or kinesthetic/tactile (hands-on).

However, studies fail to show a statistically significant relationship between learning styles and comprehension. You see, we learn best when we experience a blend of cognitive (knowledge/ information), affective (attitudes/ beliefs), and behavioral (practical/ practice) activities. If you want to learn to think and learn in new ways, expand your cognitive capacities

Howard E. Gardner, developmental psychologist, renowned professor, and senior director of Harvard Project Zero, has spent decades researching the development of the human mind. His studies on how people learn, create, lead, and influence others are the foundation for his book, Five Minds for the Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009).

Expand Cognitive Capacities

According to Gardner, we can expand our cognitive capacities in five different kinds of minds:

  1. Disciplined mind: a mastery in at least one specific scholarly discipline, craft, or profession. With a joyful passion to know more, a disciplined mind continues learning as more information emerges daily.
  2. Synthesizing mind: an ability to discern crucial information across disciplines. By weeding out the false or unimportant, the synthesizing mind can organize new information (and skills) to make sense of oneself and others.
  3. Creating mind: the knowledge to make quality, acceptable judgments that pose new, relevant questions, offer new solutions, and/or create new genres. Creating minds also requires a disciplined mind, a medium to work with or against, and performance opportunities.
  4. Respectful mind: the capacity to welcome different ideas, opinions, and needs that move beyond tolerance for greater understanding and unity. Respectful minds respond to differences among individuals and groups constructively and with empathy.
  5. Ethical mind: the tools to conceptualize how to move beyond self-interests to improve the lot of all. Ethical minds act consistently with conceptualizations, striving for good work and ethical balance in micro-to-global environments.

The first three kinds of minds deal primarily with cognitive capacities. The last two deal with our relations with other human beings. Unless we increasingly value diversity and the common good, we risk our very survival.

As Gardner writes, it is not enough to state what each individual or group needs to survive on its own turf. In the long run, it is not possible for parts of the world to thrive while others remain desperately poor and deeply frustrated. Recalling the words of Benjamin Franklin, We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.

The critical questions to ask are:

  1. With which of these minds do I already show strength?
  2. How can I expand my cognitive capacities?
  3. Where can I stretch my abilities to enable growth?
  4. Which of these minds do I need to learn?
  5. Who in my organization can help mentor me?
  6. How can I assist others with this knowledge?

A Mindset for Learning

As a leader, how do you learn? Let me ask: when was the last time you learned something in a new way? Was it intentional or unexpected?

The mindset we develop over the years (heavily influenced by our caregivers, educators, or other environmental factors, like a pandemic) exerts a powerful impact on our attitudes and beliefs toward learning and achieving.

As a psychologist, Stanford professor, and author Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D., explains in her audiobook Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House Audio, 2019), our mindset creates our whole mental worldview and determines whether we approach life with an optimistic or pessimistic attitude. It shapes our goals and attitudes toward work and relationships, ultimately predicting whether we reach our full potential. How?

We have one of two basic mindsets:

  1. Growth: open to growth and learning, this open mindset believes that one can always do better.
  2. Closed: closed to growth and learning, this closed mindset is entrenched in the belief that natural talents and abilities predetermine success.

With a growth mindset, we believe that we can always learn more, do more, and improve. We are confident yet humble enough to do the work required to expand our potential. Our open mindset allows us to seek and accept criticism as important feedback, not a personal insult.

With a closed mindset, we believe success is based on innate talents; we shouldn’t have to work hard to achieve (change, grow, improve, etc.) Abilities are set in stone: either you have them or you don’t. A closed mindset requires that you prove yourself over and over again. This is the path to stagnation or worse.

A closed mindset chips away at our confidence and sense of self. As a result, we try to look smart and accomplished at all costs. We seek validation of our worth and want to be right instead of showing an interest in feedback and willingness to make changes or adjustments.

If you have an open (or growth) mindset, you know your talents can be developed and that great abilities are built over time. This is the true learning style of leaders: the path of opportunity and leadership success.

Explore Attitudes and Beliefs

What are your attitudes and beliefs about your own intelligence? Consider the statements listed below. Which is most true for you at this point in time?

  1. Your intelligence is something very basic that cannot change much.
  2. You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your intelligence.
  3. No matter how intelligent you are, you can always improve.
  4. You can substantially change how intelligent you are.

The first two statements reflect a more closed mindset, while three and four indicate a more open or growth mindset. Now, consider other key areas, roles, or abilities in your professional and personal life. For example, substitute creativity, relationship skills, or parenting for intelligence. Where is there room to improve your attitude or beliefs?

The Learning Mindset for Executive Leadership

In his best-selling work, Good to Great (Harper Business, 2011), Jim Collins writes about the type of executive leader who takes companies to greatness. They are not larger-than-life, charismatic types who ooze big egos and self-proclaimed talent. Rather, they are self-effacing individuals who constantly ask questions and can confront the most brutal answers. They look failures in the face, including their own, while maintaining faith that they’ll succeed in the end.

Collins calls such open-mindset executives Level 5 Leaders, who:

  1. Always work on self-improvement.
  2. Surround themselves with the most able people they can find.
  3. Look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies.
  4. Identify the skills that they and their companies will need in the future.

These traits allow them to move forward with confidence grounded in facts, not built on fantasies about their own talents.

Open-minded leaders aren’t afraid of debate and questioning. They prod and then prod deeper to uncover realities and weaknesses.

Anyone can change his or her mindset. It requires conscious practice, vigilance, and a willingness to learn and change.

Still, it’s not easy to let go of something that has made you feel like yourself for many years and has served as your path to self-esteem. It’s especially difficult to replace it with a mindset that requires you to embrace issues that feel threatening: challenges, struggle, criticism, and setbacks.

We adopt a closed mindset because it protects us from feeling vulnerable. But opening up to growth allows us to experience the fulfillment of our real potential. This is the true learning style of executive leaders.

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