I had an interest in learning agility 30 years ago, when it had a name, but no one could measure it. My interest went into a state of suspended animation for several years, but was reinvigorated when Warner Burke claimed he could create a solution. I then developed a passion for learning agility when Burke delivered that solution for measuring it. While Burke provided the stepping stones for measurement, I felt compelled to help others understand what this learning agility thing was all about.
In my work with leaders throughout the years, my challenge has been to describe the concept of learning agility in a way that resonates with them. I refined my description of learning agility to be: finding yourself in a situation in which you have never been, not knowing what to do, but figuring it out. This is a concept that is clearly applicable to our current global challenge with coronavirus.
True leaders stand out during a time of crisis. They are the people others look to for guidance, comfort, and a model of resilience. I look around at the news and see positive and negative examples of leadership. My inclination is to compare today’s leaders with past leaders, specifically with how they responded in times of crisis.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s newest book on leadership has some great examples. Goodwin looks at the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. She describes their early lives ─ which were very different, from very poor to very privileged. And while each of them dealt with a period of adversity, where they tried to do something and failed, they all seemed to learn from, or overcome, that adversity and went on to become Presidents of the United States.
The most interesting points described by Goodwin were the challenges each of these former Presidents encountered in that role. For Lincoln, it was the Civil War and the decision to introduce the Emancipation Proclamation. For Teddy Roosevelt, it was the coal strike and whether the federal government should intervene. For Franklin Roosevelt, it was becoming President during the Great Depression, introducing the New Deal, and acting as Commander and Chief during World War II.
In my opinion, however, Lyndon Johnson was the most interesting of all. He took over as President for John Kennedy and then implemented the Great Society. He introduced a series of social programs that benefited many, but provided the most for minorities and the less advantaged. Once Johnson succeeded with his domestic program, he then turned to the international stage ─ and Vietnam. For all of his successes domestically, he was awkward, uncomfortable, and unsuccessful internationally.
Looking at it from a learning agility perspective, Johnson had the nine capabilities, or dimensions, as Burke defined them. As a refresher, the nine dimensions are: 1) Speed, 2) Flexibility, 3) Performance Risk Taking, 4) Interpersonal Risk Taking, 5) Experimenting, 6) Collaborating, 7) Feedback Seeking, 8) Information Gathering, and 9) Reflecting. Why was he able to use those capabilities domestically but not internationally?
Goodwin explained that on the night of the Kennedy assassination, Johnson stayed up until 3 a.m. talking to his staff about his aspirations ─ which became the Great Society. Although he didn’t have a name for it at the time, he had a vision with identified goals. In learning agility terms, that describes the Flexibility dimension – being able to look at disparate things and create a framework to describe the relationships. His discomfort with the world outside the U.S. prevented him from changing paradigms and seeing that situation in different ways. Goodwin described Johnson as being very passionate about what became the Great Society, so that passion translated into motivation for accomplishing his goals. He didn’t have that same passion when it came to Vietnam. He didn’t understand it and wasn’t passionate about it, which translated to his undoing.
Applying the lessons from our past, how can today’s leaders navigate the coronavirus’s impact on society in a way that will make us more effective tomorrow?
Speed. We need to be able to look at a large amount of information and quickly identify the few, most critical pieces.
Flexibility. We need to be able to look at an unfamiliar situation and keep changing our paradigms in order to determine a solution. This means looking at something in new and different ways.
Performance Risk Taking. We need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and know there will likely be failures along the way.
Interpersonal Risk Taking. We need to ask the difficult, uncomfortable, and unpopular questions.
Collaborating. We need to be willing to connect with anyone that can expand our thinking. The solution may come from the most unlikely source and, if we are not open to all sources, we may miss it.
Feedback Seeking. This requires an understanding that we’ll make mistakes. When we do, we should ask others for ways to improve what we are attempting to do.
Information Gathering. There is a plethora of information out there – how do you access it, prioritize it, analyze it?
Experimenting. This was one of the dimensions I see regularly demonstrated during the coronavirus pandemic. It takes years to normally develop a vaccine, so how do we do it in months? There have been all kinds of trials going on in the private sector, public sector, and combination of the two.
Reflecting. There are lessons to be learned from all over the globe. What did we learn from Spain, Italy, and Korea? While moving fast is critical, not slowing down to understand and articulate what we learned may prevent us from going faster in the future.
No matter what the next pandemic or other cataclysmic challenge may hold for our planet, we can apply the capabilities of learning agility to “flatten the curve” and overcome them.
David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.