Another Look at the Learning Agility of Modern-Day Leaders

Would you consider Gerald Ford a strong collaborator for helping the nation heal after Richard Nixon left office?

Do you think George W. Bush and his father, George H.W., lacked flexibility in their perceived unwillingness to change their stances once they had taken them?

These might not be questions you consider often – if ever – but I, along with a group of my peers, recently had another opportunity to closely evaluate some of America’s modern leaders.

For the third consecutive summer, I had the privilege of being a participant in a presidential forum offered by UNC-Wilmington’s Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI). In this year’s student-led seminar, we focused on Gerald Ford through George W. Bush.

Like last year, I was invited to give a presentation on learning agility at the opening session. The idea was that, armed with an understanding of learning agility – which is considered to be closely linked to leadership potential – my classmates and I could then use it as a lens through which to view each of the presidents we discussed.

For the last two years, EASI•Consult® has worked with Warner Burke, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University. Burke has created and validated a test that measures learning agility, appropriately called the Burke Learning Agility Inventory™ (Burke LAI™).

As you may already know, there are nine dimensions to the Burke LAI:

  1. Flexibility – Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.
  2. Speed – Acting on ideas quickly to discard those that aren’t working and accelerate more promising possibilities.
  3. Experimenting – Trying out new behaviors (i.e. approaches, ideas) to determine what is effective.
  4. Performance Risk Taking – Seeking new activities (i.e., tasks, assignments, roles) that provide opportunities to be challenged.
  5. Interpersonal Risk Taking – Discussing differences with others in a way that can generate unique opportunities for learning.
  6. Collaborating – Finding ways to work with others that lead to unique learning opportunities.
  7. Information Gathering – Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.
  8. Feedback Seeking – Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance.
  9. Reflecting – Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective.

These dimensions differentiate people who are more learning agile from those who are less so. The more learning agile someone is, the more options they will be able to draw upon to solve a problem.

Here is a summary of the OLLI Forum’s unscientific impressions of six presidents using the Burke LAI:

President Table











Of the presidents we studied, Clinton ranked as the most learning agile overall, and we found that Ford, Carter, Reagan and H.W. Bush demonstrated a medium amount of overall learning agility. The least learning agile of this year’s group of presidents was George W. Bush, whom the class determined did not have any individual learning agility strengths.

In his book, Decision Points, George W. wrote that he viewed himself as more of a student of people than ideas or information. This aligns with what we found to be his strongest of the nine learning agility dimensions, Collaborating. Like Ford, George W. Bush’s weakness was lacking Speed, or the ability to absorb a lot of information and get to its essence.

Reagan did show some Flexibility, Collaborating and Performance Risk Taking, but none of them stood out as a clear strength. The class also felt he did not show much evidence of Information Gathering.

Carter, the “Man from Plains,” was seen as a Washington outsider. While he seemed to be a Performance Risk Taker, some of those risks led to high gas prices and long gas lines. Interest rates also went through the roof during his administration. Some might say his learning agility weakness in the area of Collaborating caused him to be ineffective.

It has been a lot of fun over these last few summers to discover in more detail some of our nation’s leaders’ strengths and weaknesses and, in some cases, the consequences we experienced as a result of their choices. It has also been exciting to use the Burke LAI as a tool for studying them.

While this is the end to the presidential series, there is much more to come on learning agility. Look for a book on learning agility, co-written by Hoff and Burke, this fall.

David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at EASI•Consult®. EASIConsult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.

EASI·Consult® is the registered name for Expert Advocates in Selection International, LLC.
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