Aug 29

How Can You Prevent Leaders from Being Deceived by Learning


In this article, you will learn how leaders can be deceived by learning. You will learn how to eradicate this deception. I will share two stories involving former Fortune 500 corporate leaders to illustrate how even successful leaders can be deceived by learning. Then you can assess how preventing this deception can benefit your company.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is what a 63-year old middle manager said to me during his company’s leadership training session. He was responding to my question whether he could simply accept constructive feedback for what it was, helpful feedback. For him, receiving constructive feedback had always involved hour-long closed-door conversations where he and his supervisor would first raise their voices and engage in heated conversation. He took pride in noting they were always able to work through the constructive feedback. By his old dog response, he was letting me know that he was set in his ways. Then because he was open and interested in learning, he proceeded to accept constructive feedback from me without any resistance. He was no longer constrained by his past experiences.

What about you? Are you interested in learning something in this article you can immediately use to become a more effective leader? If you are interested, you will learn how to prevent leaders from being deceived by learning. 

Merriam Webster’s definition of learning includes “knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study.” Dictionaries define words the way they are commonly used. Learning, like most words in the English language, is commonly used in more than one way. Yet acquiring knowledge is markedly different than acquiring skill. Leaders frequently confuse acquiring leadership knowledge as being sufficient where acquiring leadership skill is essential.

To prevent deception, communication theorist Paul Watzlawick defines learning in two different and distinct orders. First order learning is acquiring knowledge. It involves taking in, comprehending, and recalling information. Everyone has an abundance of experience with first order learning from school and multiple venues. To become an effective leader, first order learning is both essential and insufficient.

Second order learning is acquiring skill, elevating your ability to produce results. Second order learning is useful learning. It involves figuring out when to selectively apply first order learning to produce the intended result. To acquire leadership skills, second order learning includes utilizing how each person responds to your leadership action as feedback to further elevate your leadership skills. Second order learning is essential to effective leadership.

I was working with the leadership team of a company whose CEO was a former corporate leader in a Fortune 500 Company. This CEO hired me to develop the skills of his leadership team. He believed his extensive leadership training and experience at a Fortune 500 Company was all that he needed. I had to utilize every ounce of my persuasion skill to pull this CEO into the training. I knew his company would benefit by him learning how to empower people and effect work related change through one brief conversation. After working with them for three sessions, I conducted a mid-term assessment. I interviewed everyone who reported to the leadership team to assess the leadership team’s progress. I learned from every team member interviewed that this CEO had significantly elevated his leadership skills.

Learning is especially confusing because so much learning has involved acquiring knowledge. Effective leadership involves more than acquiring knowledge about various techniques. Let’s take for example the sandwich technique that is typically learned to give constructive feedback. It is not the sandwich technique or any other technique which makes a leader effective in giving constructive feedback. Constructive feedback is effective when the leader gives the feedback with the intent of being helpful to the receiver, and the receiver understands this intent before receiving the feedback. The sandwich technique is not needed when the person receiving the feedback understands the leader’s intent to be helpful and their confidence in the receiver’s ability to benefit from the feedback. Elevating the skill giving constructive feedback includes being attentive as to how each person responds to feedback, tailoring the leader’s approach accordingly, and then utilizing how that person responds as feedback to further elevate the leader’s skill. Leaders with elevated skill giving constructive feedback will reduce the need for involuntary terminations and the costs associated with training new hires.

I was leading a training session for another company. Their CEO was a former VP at a Fortune 500 Company. The session was about unleashing the power inherent in a corporate vision statement. This CEO shared with their team that they had never really gotten much value out of the Fortune 500 Company’s corporate vision statement. Their confidential comment is an indication that this leader had acquired knowledge about vision and not skill. When a leader has acquired skill in utilizing their corporate vision statement, then they will utilize it to inspire themselves and their team. The value is not in acquiring knowledge about vision; it is in elevating skill utilizing their corporate vision as a tool to empower people to achieve the vision or move closer to achieving it. With elevated skills, they and those whom they lead will experience these expected benefits: unleashed passion, commitment, creativity, and performance.

Several years ago, I invested 7 years launching and sustaining a collaborative initiative to create a county welfare system that empowers clients receiving public assistance to become financially self-sufficient. Included among 100 community volunteers were 30 business and community leaders and more than a dozen people receiving public assistance. These clients had caught the spark to help other clients become self-sufficient in addition to helping themselves. One of these volunteers became a catalyst uniting other volunteers receiving public assistance. They had received no training in how to utilize a vision as a leadership tool. Yet they envisioned families applying for food stamp benefits receiving food for their families so they would not go hungry while they were waiting to receive their food stamp benefits. They pictured these families being treated with dignity and respect because they would be served by others who had previously walked in their shoes. These volunteers launched, sustained, and staffed a food bank for five years. Most became financially self-sufficient while helping others. They were driven by their vision and experienced the expected benefits. Corporations, who have a corporate vision statement have not necessarily been driven by their corporate vision nor experienced the benefits even though their leaders have acquired knowledge about vision.

In conclusion, I have provided you a means to prevent leaders from being deceived by learning. To achieve this end, I have drawn a distinction between two orders of learning: acquiring knowledge and acquiring skill. I shared two stories involving former Fortune 500 corporate leaders to help you see how successful leaders can be deceived by learning. I invite you to assess how preventing leaders from being deceived by learning can benefit your organization.