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Philippa White

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How experiential learning ignites greater humanity in leaders

If we want to develop more self-aware leaders, embracing experiential learning is the way forward.

Do you remember learning about science when you were, say, 11?

You opened the textbook, and you read about dilution, concentration, and the point of saturation. You wrote the keywords down, and then tried desperately to memorise the definitions.

Then, the teacher pulled out a glass, some water, a spoon, and sugar. And then, through the simple experience of putting the sugar in the water, dilution, concentration, and the point of saturation became evidently clear.

The act of doing something creates new neural pathways. You can read something, or listen to someone tell you something. But it’s hard to get your head around something until you do it.

Theory is the acquisition of knowledge; experiential learning turns this knowledge into wisdom, through the act of doing. 

Experiential versus traditional 

I can tell you how to do something. But you won’t gain the necessary competencies until you do it yourself.

I’ve recently seen a few publications reflecting on leadership and leadership training. They have outlined the strongest and weakest skills amongst learning professionals, explained what learning departments are doing well, and then how they can improve.

To profoundly change the world, we need leaders need to connect with their emerging selves.

But what I find interesting is that in these data points, there is little reflection on experiential learning. And to add to that, the current inability of leadership training to properly develop the leadership competencies that the world needs now. 

I truly believe that to profoundly change the world, leaders need to connect with their emerging selves. 

They need to know who they are

We are living at a moment of profound disruption, profound volatility, uncertainty,and complexity. We are all trying to adjust to this disruption and looking for our role to respond.

Where we were is different to where we are going.

For decades the world has been calling out for inspiring and effective leadership – leaders who can transcend adversity and challenge the dysfunctional status quo that is so glaringly apparent. 

And yet, billions are spent every year on leadership training – but do we believe that the current traditional learning landscape is creating leaders to have the necessary competencies needed to respond to the challenges our world faces? Is this training being delivered as effectively as it could be? 

Perhaps there are a few things to reflect on here.

I would say that it is impossible to unleash this potential in leaders through traditional theoretical learning alone. We need an approach that includes experiential learning.

People may learn new information or techniques but until they apply that thinking through actions, their consciousness remains unchanged.

Working towards a transcendent shift 

Just information doesn't make someone more courageous, more culturally intelligent, or more inspiring or purpose driven – all elements of an effective leader.

However, once an individual has experienced a transcendent shift in being, a new level of consciousness, they see and hold everything differently. They are a different person once they have this highly personal existential shift in self-awareness.

I also recently had a conversation with Edmund Monk, the CEO of the LPI. He pointed out that this transcendental shift also requires the culture and freedom to make the existential shift in self-awareness (which must be company-wide), and the personal commitment to establishing and maintaining a growth mindset (one of the most employable ‘skills’ according to the WEF). 

A successful learning landscape is the responsibility of all employees and leadership.

He says that a successful learning landscape is the responsibility of all employees and leadership, and I couldn’t agree more.

It is also important to note, that before COVID, many experiential learning programmes, including our own, were thought only possible through immersive, in-person programmes.

However, what the pandemic demonstrated to many of us, is that experiential learning via remote methods is not only possible, but also extremely powerful. 

As Edmund Monk says: “The humanising of digital content will be critical in building purpose-driven companies”.

Modernising traditional learning

Traditional learning is based on theories and learning from the past – they upgrade your skills through knowledge. However, continuing to think and behave as we have in the past is contrary to the best interest of all of humanity. 

As Einstein said: "We cannot solve our problems with the same consciousness with which we created them".

In essence, traditional learning alone fails to address the humanity of great leaders. For that, we need to find opportunities for them to create improved self-awareness and discover what their own strengths are.

In turn, this will allow them to work out what it is about them as individuals that makes them great.

‘The key is to surround yourself with people who have all of the virtues that you don’t have.’

Leaders knowing who they are, gives them a tighter brief of who they need around them, and who they should have on their team. And this is the leadership that the world needs now.

Like my friend and mentor Jim Carroll says: “The key is to surround yourself with people who have all of the virtues that you don’t have”.

He goes on to explain that leaders need to surround themselves with others who think differently, so that a top performing team is then created.

You don’t want an echo chamber of like-minded people.

Traditional academic training doesn’t prepare employees to respond with the agility, fresh thinking, or teamwork that companies need to navigate the uncertainties they are facing.

Society and traditional learning are pushing people into specialisations instead of freeing up the ‘soft qualities’ of a leader so that they can experience who they are at their best.

The world is crying out for people who are willing to see things differently; who realise that they are the changemakers that the world needs, and that they are the ones we’ve been waiting for; that they can be the ones to make the necessary ripples.

The future will be shaped by companies whose people have been yanked out of predictable silos. As comfort zone disruptors with more than 17 years of creating transformative learning journeys for some of the biggest global companies, we have seen the power of experiential learning.

By exposing people to global challenges, we have been able to ignite their humanity, ingenuity, and purpose. 

The world is crying out for people who are willing to see things differently; who realise that they are the changemakers that the world needs.

It happened when Sam from a London ad agency went to Brazil and in 6 weeks got PreP (a medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV) into the hands of thousands of vulnerable Brazilians. Increasing uptake in the lifesaving drug by 100%, and spending only £350.

A further example involves Trevor from an ad agency in New York, who got 10,000 fuel efficient stoves into the hands of Malawians, decreasing deforestation, and saving lives from lower tract respiratory infections due to smoke inhalation. He achieved this in only 30 days, and it led to an uptake of 2 million stoves by 2020, using a simple communications campaign.

There was also the case of a small global team of professionals who used their skills to create a solution to generate income for a human rights NGO in Syria and Iraq, supporting survivors of war and trauma and ISIS in the region, and generating thousands of dollars, in under 2 months, virtually.

These examples prove that tangible and real change is possible with limited time, human and financial resources.

What does this mean for the future of learning?

By experiencing their humanity, removed from their day-to-day comfort zone, participants achieved clarity on where to go moving forward, as well as awareness of their true potential and what they are capable of.

The experiences injected a renewed faith in who they are and what they can do.

As Javier Pladevall, the CEO of Volkswagen said in 2018: “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human”.

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