The School of Athens (detail), fresco by Raphael in the Apostolic Chapel, Vatican City
Ideas for Leaders #407

Be a Learning Leader

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Key Concept

For organizations to learn and adapt, their employees must also learn and adapt. Leaders inspire learning through a range of relationships with direct reports and peers. They must develop relationships that encourage and facilitate individual learning. Different types of learning relationship need distinct personal leadership behaviours. Leaders can adapt to the different learner expectations and create conducive conditions for improving organizations’ learning performance.

Idea Summary

Leaders drive the process of organizational learning and adaptation by providing time and space, granting the freedom to explore and fail, and by encouraging those around them to look at things in new ways. 

This research examines the characteristics of a core set of leadership relationships, providing insights to help leaders reflect on their own behaviours in different developmental contexts. It identifies four basic learning relationship structures: formal authority; equal influence with peers; two-way knowledge creation and mutual learning; and ripples of influence. 

Sometimes, for example, leaders will find themselves coaching someone who directly reports to them. At other times, the leader and their direct report will learn together, co-creating knowledge as they develop new ways of dealing with changed circumstances. On further occasions, the leader will mentor a peer. And sometimes the leader and their peer will learn together, as equals.

To be most effective, each type of learning relationship calls for different behaviours. The influence of authority, whether based on formal hierarchy or expertise, colours conversations and the dynamics of the relationship. For example, when coaching a direct report, a leader should avoid slipping into an authoritarian ‘performance management’ mode. Formal authority casts a big shadow, and telling people what to do is a major barrier to learning. 

A leader learning together with a peer has altogether different relationship dynamics. Peers often have expert authority from different specialisms. They will each need to listen to – and value – each other’s points of view. They must accept that combining their different perspectives to gain real insight can mean questioning some of the assumptions and knowledge at the heart of their expertise.

Business Application

As a leader, one of your most important responsibilities is to create a climate in which people feel comfortable and supported in their efforts to learn and change, and feel enthused to develop knowledge that will be useful both to the organization and themselves in their careers. How you behave in your relationships with peers and direct reports sends a powerful message about the priorities for learning.

A learning leader should:

  • Address the distinct differences in ‘follower’ expectations and needs
  • Moderate emphasis on performance appropriately, so direct reports feel free to learn
  • Be transparent and balanced to show confidence about learning jointly with direct reports
  • Open doors and create supportive conditions for peers to learn from them
  • Value and promote interdependence so that they can learn with peers 
  • Question their own expertise, reflecting constructively on whether their knowledge and experience are still appropriate to the situation
  • Ask enough of the right kinds of questions and listen to the feedback
  • Create the conditions for others to answer their own questions
  • Encourage freedom by building followers’ confidence to challenge them, others, the system and the rules
  • Create enough situations where they are accessible, actively engaging in learning relationships
  • Make themselves emotionally accessible, as opposed to intimidating
  • Seek to keep learning at the heart of conversations with peers and direct reports.
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Idea conceived

  • December 2013

Idea posted

  • June 2014

DOI number




Do organizations get the learning leaders they deserve? Jane McKenzie. The Henley Forum for Organizational Learning and Knowledge Strategies and the Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership (2013). The full paper can be obtained from the The Henley Forum for Organizational Learning and Knowledge Strategies.

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