Learning Agility; Three Imperatives

"The opposable mind is one that can create tension between ideas, using that tension to develop new answers to challenging problems…[integrative thinking]…mastery of it is what sets highly successful leaders apart from the masses." (Riel & Martin, Creating Great Choices)

In today’s volatile and disruptive world, there is one leadership attribute that is critical above all others: Learning Agility.

"Leaders who demonstrate high levels of learning agility can adapt quickly in unfamiliar situations and can even thrive amid chaos. Leaders who are learning-agile continuously seek new challenges, solicit direct feedback, self reflect, are flexible and resourceful; and in times of uncertainty, they take charge and rapidly figure out the next best steps." (see Korn Ferry attached)

**** Optimizing Tension ****

In the quest for learning agility, future leaders must skillfully surface the healthy tension found in the following three developmental imperatives and derive clarity and meaning from them. Capitalizing on this tension will stretch leaders from their comfort zone to their learning zone:

  • Pursuing Change. Are we victims of current circumstance, merely surviving the "now", or actively shaping the future? Leaders must move past resistance to change and actually aggressively pursue change. Given incessant external influences causing organizations to "pivot" in new directions, followed by increasingly shortened periods of stability between the "pivots", today’s leaders must actually optimize for the "pivot" itself. This paradox mandates managing two or more opposing forces, often when there is not a long term solution in either direction. There is a need to find and increase the "upside" of each force while reducing the "downside," not just in times of crisis, but in every day work. From this context, we often experience a shared bond resulting in a higher sense of connectedness and purpose. **** The tension: How do we best overcome the inherent, very human bias toward maintaining the status quo and harness uncertainty to our advantage?

At the highest state, leaders of organizations must be able to capture this interconnectedness not only during times of change and uncertainty, but in every day work. Leaders must be able to manage the actual reality that is occurring...or better yet...deliberately drive toward new ones.

  • Measure of Diversity. Cognitive effort must be given toward the capacity to develop relationships with diverse people, mindsets, and thinking. Numerous studies prove that key developmental experiences involve learning from relationships. As such, many successful leader development practices involve learning from or with others – a deliberate effort focused toward learning from diverse thought, best practices and sharing across boundaries. Future leaders must transcend boundaries to be inclusive. This will be a significant undertaking and will require new learning. Leaders will have to truly leverage the diversity of their human capital at their command. This will include cultivating environments where tensions are acceptable, and welcomed, to arise within the group; because the sailors in that group will be equipped to disagree with one another and resolve the tensions so the team is stronger by knowing themselves and each other more deeply. Only by truly acknowledging and mitigating deeply held beliefs and assumptions with ourselves and our teams can we overcome biases, and in resolving those tensions we can embody an inclusive culture. **** The tension: How do we readily and safely overcome our reductive world view to reveal an open mindset and wholeness.
  • Abandoning the Past. Strong leaders don’t talk about risk taking – they do it! Then…they have the courage to stick with it. Being able to abandon a leadership practice that may have served a leader well in the past opens the door to new more productive habits. Behavioral commitments allow for discovery of new procedures and practices mandating willingness/alertness to abandon old procedures that no longer serve our new challenges. Until leaders are able to readily discard old thought and blindly protect it with seemingly invisible defense systems, they will not attain the truest and best self. Only with this boldness, only with courage, only by addressing this tension and staying true to the Profession can they push the frontier of knowledge past "best practices" and create a new learning at individual, communal, and organizational levels. **** The tension: Keenly understanding the context of the desired future existence and cleverly leveraging tools and resources requisite to overcome uncertainty and risk.

To maximize the amount of personal change generated in leaders and to have it stick, these three imperatives should be deeply embedded in all developmental initiatives.

"There is an invisible strength within us; when it recognizes two opposing objects of desire, it grows stronger." (RUMI)


In future postings we will explore the movement of human development out of the classroom and into everyday work on ships and war rooms. This will require a high level of mastery for building and sustaining developmental infrastructure that is, as Peter Senge says, "continually creating its capacity for the future."