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The Lifelong Learning Journey:  The road less traveled?

Posted by Michelle Webb on Apr 25, 2019 11:50:13 AM

life-long-learning-journey-blogA commitment to “lifelong learning” has often been touted as a critical attribute of both great leaders and followers.  Lately, I have begun to wonder if even the term “lifelong learning” has become something of a cliché and a self-descriptive often overused without full appreciation of the degree of personal and self-mastery required to keep that commitment.

"Let us never consider ourselves finished….We must be learning all of our lives."……………..Florence Nightingale

Horizontal AND Vertical Leadership Development are needed

Nick Petrie, Senior Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership has written extensively about the need for Horizontal and Vertical development of leaders.  He notes the failure of most leadership programs to promote both the vertical and horizontal development of leaders.  Horizontal development adds more knowledge, skills, competencies and tools to the leader’s toolbox, while Vertical development refers to the advancement of a person’s thinking capability.  As individuals develop vertically, their ability to think in more complex, creative, systemic, strategic and interdependent ways grows.  Petrie contrasts the two by describing horizontal development as transferring information to the leader, while vertical development transforms the leader. He identifies four common issues built into the design of many leadership development programs that limit their effectiveness :  wrong focus, lack of connectivity to the work the leader has to do, focus on the leader in isolation from key stakeholders, and the too short “event-focused”  length of programming1.We need education and development programs that create a need for individuals to “stay in learning mode”.  Teleios Collaborative Network’s Leadership System and programs are designed to promote both horizontal and vertical leadership development.

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Staying in Learning Mode

The day to day challenges of just getting the work done in an increasingly more distracted, complex and rapidly changing environment, can produce frenetic human “doing” rather than intentional human action based on thoughtful human “thinking and being”.   How do you encourage learners to consistently operate in “learning mode”?   Skillfully and artfully asking questions and listening deeply to uncover the learner’s “what” (deeply held values, compelling why behind the choice to do the work) are useful strategies.  These strategies facilitate learning, critical thinking, and can reawaken a curiosity and joy in the work that may have been lost or lay dormant in an individual.    

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Staying in learning mode promotes the type of big, creative thinking that is essential in our VUCA world.  VUCA is an acronym derived initially from the work of leadership theorists Warren Benis and Burt Nanus.  It was later introduced in military education and now is used widely in strategic leadership to describe the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity of the environment that characterizes our personal and professional lives in the current global society.

Big, creative thinking is needed to advance an important cause and purpose in a VUCA world (Volatile, Unpredictable/uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) AND it is not just for formal leaders anymore.

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The concepts of horizontal and vertical leadership development can be applied to any activity that is undertaken to develop any individual personally and professionally.  We need more than just knowledgeable leaders and clinicians to do the work of providing excellent healthcare.  We need transformation in the way leaders, clinicians and all healthcare organizational members think about the work that we do.   Perhaps what is needed is the type of thinking that challenges the way we have always done it, as well as the way we have done it successfully in the past.   We need big thinking that critically and creatively imagines the possibilities of how it could be done in a VUCA world.  And, we need leaders and clinicians who can translate the best available evidence available from the growing science of hospice and palliative care to transform serious illness care. 

One of my favorite scriptures in the Bible is:

2 Corinthians 6:11 (The Message Translation)

Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life.  We didn’t fence you in.  The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way….Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively.

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I have a key takeaway from that scripture that I apply in my work as a leader and teacher.  It led me to a belief that we don’t see the world as it is… (or even as it could be) we see it as we are.  I believe that our ability to change and positively impact our world is influenced by the smallness or bigness of our thinking.  A commitment to the lifelong and often arduous journey of learning is one way we continually move our fences.  My goal as a leader and teacher is help individuals avoid being fenced in by their own limited thinking and mental ruts.

Many organizations aspire to be ‘learning organizations.’  One of 5 key traits identified as shared by learning organizations is a “Lifelong Learning” Mindset.  Personal mastery on an individual level births a forward-thinking mindset where continual growth and learning is valued2.  Ideally, everyone in the organization, not just formal leaders will be engaged at some level in a process of lifelong learning and the organizational leadership will commit the resources and time needed to cultivate the development of this mindset throughout the organization.

Increasing the commitment to lifelong learning within an organization requires:

  • Leadership that models the way AND
  • Skillfully facilitated learning experiences

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It is important to design professional development programs for every member of the organization that: 1) ensure the right focus, 2) can be connected and applied to the learner’s  daily work, 3)  are offered as  “a part” of the “process of professional development”, not just as teaching and learning events; and 4) require some accountability for practice, skills development and personal behavior change. 

This type of professional development approach is perhaps one of our best strategies for getting everyone in our organization intentionally and purposefully on the road to “lifelong learning”. 

Michelle Webb, CNO / Chief Learning Officer 

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Sources:

1Petrie, N. (2013) Vertical Leadership Development: Developing Leaders for a Complex World – Part I, Retrieved from:  https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/VerticalLeadersPart1.pdf

2Senge, Peter. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: Τhe Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday

Topics: Lifelong Learning, Vertical Development, VUCA World, Horizontal Development