The “how to” of transformative leadership development

What we need in leadership now

The landscape that lies before us is changing rapidly, presenting increasing and fast-moving challenges. It’s safe to say the world feels upside down. As we enter a different way of ‘doing things’, leaders in particular face extreme challenges. Research urges us to rethink the way we develop leaders, to “focus on the whole leader” and avoid mind traps by participating more fully in our own evolution to generate the collaboration and new ideas needed to solve challenges.

In reality, achieving shifts in leadership behaviour is more complex than you might imagine. As we will explain, most conventional learning and development interventions, although designed and delivered with all great intention, often do not achieve the behavioural outcomes they sought to deliver. To adapt the recent quotation by Francis Briers, “What we need in our leadership now are guides in the wilderness … not self-declared experts convincing us they know exactly what will happen, but people who know how to respond skilfully and compassionately in the face of the unknown.”

A bolder approach to learning and development

In our work in over 40 countries, we often see leaders get in their own way, limiting the potential of what they, their teams and their organisation can achieve. For leaders to guide skilfully and compassionately in the face of the unknown, they need to develop the skills of personal and team ignition, focus and decision making, clarity and compassion, resilience and calm.

Cue transformative learning and transformative facilitation; a unique and radical approach to professional learning and development that can be used in group settings or one-to-one to achieve key breakthroughs. This methodology is based upon the proven psychology and neuroscience of how people learn and integrated with extensive knowledge of the executive and strategic landscapes.

The problem with the problem

So … how do we develop leaders? Aside from the day to day learning, one way is to place people in a learning space and educate them on the facets of how to lead. Sadly too often, leadership development interventions do not achieve the desired results that something will change.  The promise is rarely transmuted into workplace results.  Ask your colleagues to identify the difference a leadership development programme has made to their daily work.  Typically they cannot answer with anything of real significance.

Most organisations are wedded to a structure of leadership learning that is rigid and rarely designed or delivered in a way that reflects the way people actually learn. Typical modular-based tutorial-style training includes the objectives of the learning (starting with what needs to change), the knowledge to be imparted, exercises to practise this knowledge, and a brief process of action planning. The expectation is that learners will exit the room more capable, ready to use the newly absorbed knowledge. Sometimes this approach can work, however, there are two crucial points often overlooked but paramount to learning and transformation:

  1. The groups of individuals, being asked to change are all very different. Everyone who enters as a learner is unique; socially, culturally and professionally, with their own personality, world view, beliefs, mindsets, values, skills and experiences.
  2. Every single learner learns differently.

How do we facilitate a group of unique individuals enabling them to become great and inspiring ‘guides in the wilderness’?

Enter transformative learning.

How do we enable Transformative Learning?

Transformative learning is a deeper form of learning that occurs when an individual changes deeply embedded beliefs about themselves, others and their world. Going beyond the typical one-size-fits-all approach, it is personally shaped to each individual, meeting them where they currently are in terms of their experiences, beliefs and behaviours. 

Let’s explain … Each of us are unique, our experience of life is framed within a context of cultural assumptions, beliefs, values, memories and attitudes that directly influence the meaning we derive from our life. Beliefs such as ‘I am the intelligent one out of my friends’ or, ‘I will never get promoted to head of my department’. Over time what lies in our ‘frame of reference’ becomes deeply ingrained in our psyche to the point that we depend on it and changing it feels impossible.  Constrained by our beliefs and assumptions, we see the world subjectively, without really knowing it.

Think of our frame of reference as a filter. As new experiences enter our ‘filter’, they are subconsciously assessed and sorted to reinforce our believed experience, gradually influencing our defined reality. Our assumptions give sense and validation to our world but can also skew and distort our view. What happens when a radically incongruent experience falls into our frame of reference? We either reject it or our frame of reference is transformed to accommodate the new experience – essentially, a shift or breakthrough – so that:

  • The experience of the now and of future is forever altered
  • We are able to understand ourselves more fully and thus experience greater opportunities in our potential
  • We can view situations or our external world in a different way
  • We are provided with an enhanced range of choices and personal resources
  • We gain greater flexibility in whether to act, how to act or not to act

… How do we actually achieve this?

The art of Transformative Facilitation

To stretch the boundaries of an individual’s frame of reference, transformative facilitation raises powerful questions, ones which the learner may have never considered before. The facilitator guides the participant through a journey of self-discovery, skilfully orchestrating whatever emerges when a learner questions their beliefs and assumptions. This is a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, personal and collective navigation of a process that encourages a learner to awaken and understand themselves more – an aha-moment! – realising the untapped potential and choices available.

Commentary, ‘talking about-ism’, intellectualising, or being on the receiving end of teaching is unlikely to change behaviour. This is like the difference between someone telling you the experience of diving into the ocean, and you experiencing it: hearing the splash, feeling the water around you, emerging into the sunshine. Experience and the meaning you then ascribe to it is what makes the difference.

Knowledge is not enough, an example

Agility is often stated as an important quality that leaders should ‘have’, ‘be’ and ‘do’. However, there are many facets that go to make up the type of ‘agile’ that a person will demonstrate in their leadership role. This will be part determined and part influenced by their personality, their experience, their values, beliefs, sense of self, and the significance they ascribe to the context they find themselves facing. Agility does not mean anything until an individual gives it meaning for themselves. It is the individual that brings to life ‘agility’, otherwise it remains little more than a stated objective or a fashionable idea.

Transformative facilitation goes beyond the imparting of information, theory and logic. It provides the environment for individuals to explore, reflect and experience where they are now and to access their catalyst for great change. It is an examination of the ‘whole-body’ engagement that allows access to intellectual, emotional and embodied intelligence. This is a vital process that impacts all areas of leadership functioning: improved strategic and systems thinking, reactional and relational capability, and the capacity to lead change, as examples. Life-changing learning cannot be achieved within the constraints of a pre-planned, templated programme.

The impetus for change lies in the hands of the individual

There are many cogs that need to turn for change to happen. To start the seed of that change the transformation must come from within – from the ‘aha’ ignition point, the motivation and a build-up of momentum.

As transformative facilitators, we (Alchemy Worldwide), have developed this approach through our pioneering work with thousands of senior professionals worldwide. The astounding results have enabled us to continually shape our thinking and approach. The learners who have experienced this type of learning remember us, remember the program, and acknowledge the impact it has had in their life. It is an approach that continues to stand the test of time: “Keith and Tess talk a lot about going to the second level around ‘what does this mean?’ So not just what do I observe, what do I think, what might I need to do differently but what does this actually mean? And what does it mean for me? And what does it mean for the way I show up at work each day?” (learning participant).

This method is not to replace traditional learning and development interventions nor is this the panacea to solving all leadership problems – but it builds on the theory that real, transformative learning has the capacity to incite action and meaningful change, providing a missing piece of the learning and development jigsaw puzzle.

Facilitators, researchers, academics, and professionals in the area of learning, we encourage you to think differently and take a bolder approach to learning, development and human growth. Only then will we truly see the fruits of our labours.

Keith Jones and Tessa Sharp are authors of PROVOKE; The Art of Transformative Facilitation (UK Business Book of the Year Awards Finalist 2020) and are co-founders of Alchemy Worldwide.  They have been working in the field of Transformative Learning and Organisation Development for a combined 60 year period with experience garnered from working with leaders and executives in over 40 countries worldwide.

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