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If You Don't Apply Your Learning, It's Just Philosophy

Having recently made New Zealand my home, this week I was exploring Linkedin, looking for like-minded people who offer strategies and tools that are effective in supporting leaders. As I was searching, I came across some great individuals and companies who are creating visceral experiences for leadership teams, taking them through performance and survival experiences.

It’s this kind of work that takes people from being a philosopher, to an initiate and then, if they continue their growth experiences, to a level of mastery. It is essential if leaders are to role model the qualities they want to see their teams demonstrate. It’s the kind of embodiment that is essential and can often get missed in a traditional learning environment. Much of our training appeals to the intellect only, which is potentially dangerous.

Dangerous? Why so?

Well, intellectual learning can lull you into a false sense of security. If you sit in a training session and understand a concept you think, “I know this.” You feel intelligent and good about yourself. If you’ve been in a leadership position for a while, it’s likely you’ve been many development programmes and might think you’ve heard it all before. Familiarity can breed contempt.

If you don’t pay the information enough attention, you don’t retain it, let alone embody it and have only gain very superficial knowledge of the subject. If you can’t repeat a concept, you haven’t absorbed the information to any depth and, as neuroscience teaches us, the new neural pathways that have been created will quickly prune apart.

You’ll quickly go back to your old behaviours and perspectives. Unless you revisit the new information regularly – and apply it - you’ll only retain around 5% of what you’ve learned.

With the world - and the dynamics of leadership – constantly changing, you can’t afford to be complacent about your growth, if you want to be an effective leader.

When I lived in the UK I worked with British Airways, supporting them in designing and delivering their Crisis Response Management programme. You have probably all experienced that, when there is a crisis at an airport, the day-to-day operation can unravel. This causes people’s stress levels go through the roof, resulting in very unhelpful, unpleasant behaviour.

Cabin crew and the ground staff go through regular, rigorous training where they role play emergency situations (aircraft fires, emergency evacuations, aggressive passengers etc) because their knowledge of how to respond in a highly stressful situation needs to be more than intellectual – it needs to be second nature.

It one point BA asked middle managers to be on standby as volunteers, to come to the airport and support in a customer service capacity, should there be a crisis. This could be anything from air traffic control striking, to heavy fog or a terrorist threat.

These managers were intelligent people. They understood the simple brief they were given but were not adequately prepared to deal with the extremely stressful environment over an extended period of time.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the behaviour they encountered triggered their survival responses and they mirrored the behaviour they were being subjected to – rudeness, aggression, unreasonable reactions and overwhelm. They experienced what is known as an amygdala hijack* and were compelled to fight, flee or freeze, none of which were helpful responses.

Their learning had been intellectual, not experiential and was largely ineffective in the stressful environment. Unfair on the passengers and very unfair on them.

While it might not suit everyone to learn through a survival programme, it is essential that our learning enables us to embody the knowledge. Being effective as a leader, now more than ever, means we need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

If you’d like to know about experiential learning experiences that don’t involve being pulled along behind huskies (although that would be fun, too), please drop me a message on Linkedin, or book a call through the website.

*Amygdala attack: "An immediate and intense emotional reaction that's out of proportion to the situation."

- Daniel Goleman, psychologist, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ

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