Improve Learning Agility with Mindfulness

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By Andy Lee

In 1988, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) published a book that transformed how people thought about leadership development. In The Lessons of Experience, the authors proposed that based on their research, the most important source of professional growth is not training programs or even mentoring relationships, but rather the insights that result from on-the-job experience. They captured this lesson in the 70-20-10 prescription for leadership development, as well as professional development more broadly. 

But do all leaders learn equally from their experience? In his book High Flyers, CCL alum Morgan McCall proposed that some people learn more, and more quickly, than others. In fact, one of the most important qualities that set ‘high potential’ leaders apart from others is their ability to absorb and apply the lessons of their experience. 

This was an important insight. But at the same time, it begged another question: How can we tell which leaders may be more adept at learning from experience? Enter two other CCL Alums, Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger. In their 2000 article High Potentials as High Learners, they coined the term learning agility to describe this quality, as well as a model to assess learning agility in leaders. While the model has received some criticism, generally applied research has borne out the importance of learning agility for leader success. 

So far so good, right? All corporations need to do now is to prioritize learning agility in their assessment of potential leaders, and then enroll those high in learning agility into accelerated on-the-job learning programs. But what if learning agility was not a fixed trait? What if it could be developed in all leaders? This could usher in a whole new approach to leadership development.

As it turns out, research suggests that learning agility is in fact a capacity that can be developed. This research is emerging from the study of mindfulness, and its impact on perception, cognition, and behavior. Mindfulness is defined as the state of paying attention to one’s internal and external experience in the present moment, with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

To better understand how mindfulness enhances learning agility, it is helpful to think of learning agility as a process¸ not a trait. Then we can see how mindfulness impacts the process at every stage. The process model used is informed by the groundbreaking work of David Kolb in his book Experiential Learning, as well as a more recent model proposed by Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue. It consists of four stages:

  • Pay Attention. The first step to learning from one’s experience is to notice when opportunities to learn arise. This won’t happen when leaders are on auto-pilot, multi-tasking, or paying partial attention. Unfortunately, today’s information-overloaded work environment makes these mental states quite common. 

Mindfulness practice strengthens one’s attention, which makes it easier to tune into what’s going on around them. It also strengthens their ability to focus. This makes it more likely that they’ll recognize a learning opportunity when it arises. 

  • Be Curious. Simply paying attention is not enough. In order to result in learning, we also need to be open and curious about what we notice. It is possible be fully present in a staff meeting with the intention of quashing disagreements and pushback related to your ideas. In order to learn, we need to be open to new and diverse perspectives, even if it might feel threatening to our ego.

Curiosity and non-judgment are at the core of mindfulness practice. People learn how to recognize their own biases, preferences and expectations, and in the process they become less influenced by them, be they subconscious biases or decision-making heuristics. Surprisingly increased mindfulness practice is also associated with greater openness to experience, a personality trait. 

  • Experiment. Learning opportunities may begin with an insight, but they don’t truly manifest until a leader takes action on that insight – which means, doing something new and/or different. It may take the form of adopting a new habit, changing an existing process, or taking a calculated business risk. Doing these things requires a tolerance for uncertainty and a readiness to fail.   

Trying something new can be uncomfortable, or even scary. Mindfulness eases the process by increasing one’s tolerance for ambiguity and reducing the resistance to change. This is because one of the foundational lessons of mindfulness practice is that things are constantly changing anyway, and we need to recognize and work with this reality instead of holding on to past successes. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

  • Reflect. A final ingredient to learning from experience is having the time to review and reflect on one’s experience. We’re all familiar with coming up with insights or ideas when we’re out for a walk or taking a shower. In addition, research shows that after-event reviews help people to learn and improve, whether the events were successful or not. Unfortunately, these days it can be difficult to find the time and the peace of mind to truly reflect on one’s experience.

Reflection is another quality that is facilitated by mindfulness. Regular mindfulness practice Meditation helps us to cultivate the type of open and relaxed mindset is conducive to insight. It enhances cognitive flexibility, which makes it easier to see things from a new perspective. In addition, mindfulness practice itself can be used as a means to reflect on the day’s activities in an open and nonjudgmental way, paving the way for insights to emerge.   

The possibility of enhancing learning agility through mindfulness has important implications for leadership development. First, instead of simply identifying high potentials among early career leaders, organizations can actually enhance the leadership potential of these leaders through training in mindfulness and the process of experiential learning. 

Second, it suggests an approach to ongoing leadership development that is both practical and scalable. Instead of focusing on creating developmental experiences and experiential learning programs for leaders, organizations could turn to teaching potential leaders how to learn and grow by leveraging their existing work experiences more effectively.

Today’s leaders are constantly challenged by changing global markets, disruptive technologies, and accelerating rates of information and change. The ability to learn on the fly from one’s experience as it unfolds is far more important now than it was in 1988. By harnessing the power of mindfulness and experiential learning skills, we can equip our leaders to meet these challenges both now and in the future.

Andy Lee has been teaching mindfulness in organizations since 2011. Before founding Mindful Ethos, Andy was Chief Mindfulness Officer at Aetna where he and his team developed a range of programs to create a deeply rooted culture of mindfulness. He has also held senior talent management positions at Merrill Lynch, Viacom and Capital One. Andy is a certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher and holds an MA in Organizational Psychology and a certificate in executive coaching.


1 comment

Very informative article, Andy. It's very helpful to have this background on the evolution of thinking around the concept of 'learning agility'. And also helpful to point out the impact mindfulness has on a leader's effectiveness in applying this skill to the changing environment. You saved us a lot of research time!

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