Provision #713: Learning Matters

Laser Provision

Great leaders are learning leaders. We avoid getting attached to the first idea that comes along or even to our own great ideas. Instead, we remain open to possibility. We understand the simple truth that there is usually a better way. We not only understand that truth, we innervate that truth with positive emotion. Learning becomes an infectious part of our way of being and leadership style. Learning leaders create learning organizations, and those are the ones that stand to make the greatest difference in life. Does that sound like the kind of organization you want to lead? Then read on!

LifeTrek Provision

As I write this we are making our way through our two-week Asian tour on coaching and leadership. The tragedy in Japan has been painfully present in the awareness of just about everyone. “Have you heard?” was the first question we were asked upon getting off the plane in Hong Kong, one week ago.

Since that time, people have been mindful not only of the pain and suffering in Japan but also of the implications of this tragedy for both themselves and for the planet. While we were in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, we enjoyed a delightful tour of the city with professional guides. At one stop, we were looking at a map of Taiwan when Vincent, our guide, pointed to numerous points along the coast where nuclear power plants are located.

He then observed that Taiwan also sits on earthquake fault lines and that it could happen here as well. “The planet groans,” he noted as he took a telephone call on his tablet computer, “under the weight of our insatiable appetites for energy. Global warming is taking a terrible toll. Payback is inevitable.” There was both resignation and concern in his voice.

We have heard this from many others as well. That’s the way empathy works. As we gain a respectful understanding of the experience of others, including their feelings and needs, we stop pointing fingers and we start taking responsibility. What is happening here? How do we feel? What does it mean? How can we help?

Empathy is a prerequisite for learning. Instead of playing the blame game, we open our hearts and minds to new possibilities. Apart from empathy, all learning is theoretical. With empathy, all learning is practical. It is based in experience and invites new possibilities for making life more wonderful. Even when those possibilities are difficult to imagine, empathy helps.

We have noticed the empathy effect in our conversations with people in Hong Kong and Taiwan about the tragedy in Japan. Grieving the tragedy is awakening hope that some good will come out of this mess. New safety measures. New backup plans. New caution in plant placement. Less reliance on nuclear energy. New investment in green, alternative energy. Hope springs eternal that human needs can be met without compromising the needs of the planet.

Thank goodness for engineers! In addition to the moral and political learning that comes from crises such as these, there is also the technological learning that makes it all possible. It has been said, “Where there is a will there is way.” True enough. But the reverse is even more true: “Where there is a way there is a will.” The more we learn how, the more we embrace why.

The whole notion that learning should be action-based, related empathetically to the experiences and challenges of life itself, has been a recurrent theme on our journey through Asia and could well be described as a fundamental attribute of great leadership. Great leaders learn from life. They don’t adopt a “take-it-or-leave-it” mentality; they rather come from a “find-it-and-learn-it” frame. Great leaders are always open to possibility.

The people we have met on our travels and in our presentations have certainly demonstrated that openness • with gusto! It has been thrilling to experience their zeal for understanding and learning all that education has to offer, including the evocative coaching process we have come to share for transforming schools one conversation at a time. As challenging as it is to bring design thinking into traditional cultures, there has been a palpable desire here to learn the process and to see what it has to offer.

That was especially true of the university students we met in Hong Kong. With beautiful smiles and engaging questions, these students engaged fully with our material and the possibilities they saw for incorporating it into their life work. Who knew that what we came up with on the banks of beautiful Queen’s Lake in southeast Virginia, USA could seemingly offer so much value to people here in east Asia! We are deeply grateful.

But their enthusiasm is not about us. We have seen this before in Asian countries, and you have perhaps seen stories about it on television or the Internet: people here have a passion for learning. Their minds are sponges and they seemingly can’t get enough.

One person we had tea with in Hong Kong, a reader of LifeTrek Provisions, confirmed our hunch: these people never sleep! They go from work, to school, to study, to life without much downtime. At our conference in Kaohsiung the participants received a note book with an imprinted message that summarized this brilliantly: “Be busy but happy, and tired but joyful.”

Whether that’s healthy or not (our friend heads up a suicide-prevention hotline in Hong Kong), their zest for achievement certainly comes through in their demeanor and attitude. Their appetites for learning are as insatiable as our appetites for energy.

We also saw this enthusiasm in the youngest of school children, at the schools we visited and on the streets. On Tuesday of last week, I was out running while my wife, Megan, was walking on the promenade along the harbor in Hong Kong. There were numerous school groups present, in spite of the light rain. One was sketching pictures in their yellow raincoats. Others were interviewing foreigners, like us, to practice their English. There were so many children, and their enthusiasm for interviewing people was so great, that it made for a hard time running. I came back with more handouts than sweat!

Fortunately, the two appetites • for learning and energy • are complementary. It will take learning to get beyond our current energy crises and planetary predicaments; it will take energy to get beyond our current limitations and constraints on learning. Working on both together is the best way to go.

We had a funny exchange with our tour guide in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He wanted to know what we do so we told him: we assist school leaders, teachers, and other educators to transform schools through coaching. That struck him as odd. “Why would so highly esteemed and prized a profession as teachers be willing to accept coaching?” he asked. “Since teachers are at the head of the class, what would coaches have to offer them?”

What a difference a plane flight makes! In the USA, educators have largely lost the patina of high social regard. As test scores and international rankings have fallen, teachers are increasingly taking the brunt of the blame. There has been little empathy here. Fingers are pointing and no one is learning how to move forward in an anxious scramble to reclaim top rankings in the world.

That scramble is part of why coaching in schools has become such a hot topic. What better way to help educators improve their performance in the classroom than to provide them with coaches who could assist with their professional development and personalized learning. That was the original and has always been the primary province of coaching. Athletes work with coaches to improve their performance. Why not teachers?

The instinct is a good one. Done correctly, coaching can certainly have that effect on teachers and other educators. That’s why we wrote our book on coaching in schools. Evocative Coaching seeks to make coaching more effective as a learning technology. Too often, people become coaches without the requisite mental models and practical skills to do the job well. When that happens, coaching can do more harm than good.

The dynamics are familiar to us all. When someone tries to help us learn something, they often push their agenda more than our own. They become advocates for doing things the way they think is best rather than catalysts for helping us to figure out how to do things the way we think is best. When that happens, when they “tell and sell” a particular solution or approach, such coaches often provoke resistance rather than openness to change. Simply put, they interfere with rather than contribute to learning.

That is not the way great leaders work. Great leaders ask questions more than we provide answers. Instead of getting attached to one particular way of moving forward, great leaders stay open to possibility. We love listening to and learning from people. We enjoy brainstorming as many ideas as possible before winnowing things down and designing experiments to prototype the most favorable options. We welcome feedback and can hardly wait to make the requisite adjustments.

That’s the mark of truly great leadership. Great leaders are learning leaders who create learning organizations. Everyone is swept up in the search for new ways to move forward together. Coaching, in this context, is not so much about teaching as it is about learning. It is about asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time so that the people we work with get swept up in the learning enterprise.

What a difference this makes in life and work. When we become less agenda-driven and more learning-oriented, all manner of things get unleashed. Gone are the days of defensiveness, self-protection, and political games. Made good are the promises of openness, transparency, and transformational conversations. Those are the values that great leaders bring to the table, because those are the learning values that matter most.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of leader are you? Are you more concerned with advancing your agenda or inviting possibility? How could you become more of a catalyst for learning? How could you become less defensive and more open? What might unleash this energy for you today?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I really appreciated your Provision on Being. I so often focus my attention on what I am saying and doing, that I often forget to think about who I am being. Thanks for the reminder! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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