• Learning

Being a Learning Leader

How leaders can create conducive conditions for better learning performance across the organization


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An essential priority for leaders in organizations big and small is to create a climate in which people feel comfortable and supported in their efforts to learn and change, and feel enthused to develop knowledge that will be useful both to the organization and themselves in their careers.

How leaders drive the drive the process of organizational learning by providing time and space, granting the freedom to explore and fail, and by encouraging new ways of thinking, can depend on how they build relationships with team members and reports.

Research from Henley Business School’s Professor Jane McKenzie examines some core leadership relationships and identifies four basic learning relationship structures: formal authority; equal influence with peers; two-way knowledge creation and mutual learning; and ripples of influence. To be effective, each type of learning relationship calls for different behaviours and McKenzie’s insights help leaders reflect on their own behaviours in different developmental contexts.

The influence of authority, whether based on formal hierarchy or expertise, colours conversations and the dynamics of the relationship. For example, when coaching a direct report, a leader should avoid slipping into an authoritarian ‘performance management’ mode. Formal authority casts a big shadow, and telling people what to do is a major barrier to learning. 

A leader learning together with a peer has altogether different relationship dynamics. Peers often have expert authority from different specialisms. They will each need to listen to – and value – each other’s points of view. They must accept that combining their different perspectives to gain real insight can mean questioning some of the assumptions and knowledge at the heart of their expertise.

A learning leader should:

  • Addressthe distinct differences in ‘follower’ expectations and needs
  • Moderateemphasis on performance appropriately, so direct reports feel free to learn
  • Be transparent and balanced to show confidence about learning jointly with direct reports
  • Open doors and create supportive conditions for peers to learn from them
  • Valueand promote interdependence so that they can learn with peers 
  • Questiontheir own expertise, reflecting constructively on whether their knowledge and experience are still appropriate to the situation
  • Ask enough of the right kinds of questions and listen to the feedback
  • Create the conditions for others to answer their own questions
  • Encouragefreedom by building followers’ confidence to challenge them, others, the system and the rules
  • Createenough situations where they are accessible, actively engaging in learning relationships
  • Makethemselves emotionally accessible, as opposed to intimidating
  • Seekto keep learning at the heart of conversations with peers and direct reports.

Access the research paper: Do organizations get the learning leaders they deserve? Jane McKenzie. The Henley Forum for Organizational Learning and Knowledge Strategies and the Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership (2013). The full paper can be obtained from the The Henley Forum for Organizational Learning and Knowledge Strategies.

Set in the heart of the Thames Valley and conveniently located for London, Henley is one of the oldest and most respected business schools in Europe. Number 20 in the world for the combined ranking of open and custom programmes (FT 2019), it is part of an elite group of business schools to be triple-accredited for the quality and capability of faculty and output.

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