“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”
“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”
“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”
It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman.
These questions persist today, as addressed in my last blog. I explored ideas by the authors and developed a framework that identified and examined some of the thinking and areas of focus for developing a learning organization.
In that blog, we discussed five disciplines for creating a learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Additionally, we explored ways to dissolve three frozen thinking patterns: reactiveness, competitiveness, and fragmentation.
In sum, we noted the dimensions of a learning culture that require a different kind of leadership, beyond a single leader—leadership as a cultural norm. In a learning organization, leadership is expected from everyone and cultivated by the organizational leaders.
Commitment is Key
Before cultivating leadership can occur, a learning community or culture must begin with commitment. Recall the name of the authors’ paper. Commitment, in this case, is not an obligation, burden, or form of compliance. It is more than the time or finances invested, and it transcends goals, achievements, or sentimental compliments.
We often view commitment as something external or outside of us—something we do or accomplish. Our view of commitment requires nothing less than a new paradigm.
Buddhism’s view of commitment is a vow to embrace, as a way of life, who we are, how we live, how we show up. Commitment empowers us to act in the face of our fears and justifications to face whatever we are experiencing, now, in the moment.
In the Buddhist view, a commitment to something larger than satisfying our desires can provide us with a sense of purpose that can be very comforting and calming and can guide us.
The inquiry into learning initiates a profound and messy inquiry into the nature of being human in an organizational context. Learning is fraught with issues of fear and need, wrapped up with our identity. Much of this involves the way learning confronts knowing: what we know, who we know ourselves to be, and the openness required to be a beginner and to say, “I don’t know.”
The three hardest words for leaders to utter are “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty that marks this time in our organizational lives.
Until leaders become more comfortable with not knowing, learning will occur as a threat. This is where cultivating commitment is a fundamental first step to establish a context bigger than our personality, or identity.
Commitment grounds the journey of becoming a learning community. It supports the leadership to 1) generate a shared commitment within the organization and 2) to tap the individual commitment of all participants.
Commitment provides a larger context to create the possibility of learning, offering a way to dissolve the fragmentation, reactiveness, and competitiveness (see last blog) that tend to impede learning.
I offer a three-dimensional view of commitment that supports what’s possible in a learning culture, community, or organization.
- A personal commitment can supplant any fear of learning or change or personal needs and desires, which can involve how we look or our need to impress, perform well, or do the right thing. In this sense, commitment taps into our character, which is more timeless and value-based than timely and style-based.
- A shared commitment offers participants membership in an organization or culture that provides a larger perspective to guide our individual concerns. In this sense, commitment is a matter of direction, linked to a purpose and a compelling future that we are co-creating together.
- A commitment to change is described by the authors as a commitment “to changes needed in the larger world and to seeing our organizations as vehicles for bringing about such changes.” In this sense, commitment forms a crucible for change, stemming from a shared understanding that reflects a willingness to communicate, be accountable, and take the action that results from growth and development.
Given the depth of a shared commitment, when things get rough or when we experience setbacks, a grounded commitment that we can practice and generate offers us this inquiry to live by: “What does my commitment want from me right now?”
Three Dimensions of Leadership
To hold commitment in this way requires leadership. The authors of Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations offer a three-dimensional view of leadership to cultivate learning communities. These three dimensions include leaders as Designers, Teachers, and Stewards.
Leaders as Designers
This first dimension of leadership for a learning community involves “leader as designer.” This speaks to becoming a context-creator. Conventional learning involves content, but members in a learning community learn to appreciate context as follows:
- Designers build a foundation of purpose and core values (governing ideas) to create future. This future is not certain, or even predictable. It is an opening leaders design with others from a possibility.
- Designers develop policies, strategies, and structures that translate governing ideas into action. Designers co-create a shared commitment through enrolling others into a future in each activity, goal, and process they engage.
- Designers develop learning methods and practices that involve coordinating action and collaborating on high-performing teams to achieve goals or to serve others. This practice translates both to working together optimally and belonging to a shared commitment.
- Designers shamelessly integrate learning into the organization, not seen merely as the latest fad, tactic, technique, or fix. Today, the idea of learning is analogous to how we viewed IT two decades ago. Back then, the MIS department was in the basement with technicians we called when we had a computer or software glitch. Now IT is central to operating “smart” businesses.
Like IT today, the notion of learning must be fundamental to what’s possible in the organization. It is an organizing principle, integrated into all elements of strategy and structure, culture and practices, supply chains and marketing plans. The possibility of an organization’s growth and direction depends on its capacity to learn to learn, and to learn together.
The challenges of the second dimension, “leader as teacher,” are best presented in two parts: The Challenge of Teaching and Leaders as Teachers.
The Challenge of Teaching
Becoming a teacher is perhaps the area where many executives stumble. I’ve discovered many reasons for this. Teaching is simply not a priority for those in the C-Suite; it is typically outsourced to Human Resources or to other off-site workshops or retreats.
— Teaching is not seen as a pathway to leading or leadership. The business ethos has adopted an idiom: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This ethos diminishes the value of teaching as fundamental to “running a business.”
— To become a teacher is to become a learner. In a learning community, teaching arises from learning. This requires dissolving our identities as “experts,” letting go of “knowing,” and cultivating deep listening that manifests in openness. Moments of silence, confusion, or irritation are all moments for learning that guide teaching and ultimately, leadership.
— Many view the art and practice of teaching as an optional style or technique or consider learning organizations as yet another organizational design. They perceive these as enacting different policies or missions. This is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
— Teaching requires practice, often without measurable or predictable results. Its effects can be hard to quantify, usually requiring an upfront investment. Initially, we even regress in performance until we build new capacity. Because it cannot be immediately measured nor predicted, it is frequently dismissed as “elective.”
— Many executives and managers view leading this kind of organization from an “individual” role or perspective. Cultivating a learning organization requires focusing beyond any individual model of leadership. Indeed, it calls for servant leaders—team learners who cultivate service and commitment.
Leaders as teachers are required to reach beyond the hierarchal model where vision, information, and decisions are directed by, or funneled through, a single position or role.
Leaders as Teachers
After accepting the challenges of teaching, we can examine how to become that leader as teacher who cultivates team learning.
The art and practice of teaching and learning challenges us as individuals. It requires a team to support, guide, and experience the mutual understanding to create a learning culture. It invites members to support and challenge each other to new levels of awareness to increase capacity as follows:
— Support people to achieve views of reality that are more accurate, insightful, and empowering.
— Shift from a problem-solving model of learning to a possibility-inquiry mode that encourages us to live in questions rather than seek out answers.
— Support people to think at the systemic structure. This includes surfacing the structures and practices we create that give rise to the patterns of behavior, or what we connect, and the events level, or what we habitually download (see diagram below).