Leadership development today points to learning. But what kind of learning? Conventional programs offer training for new skills or study for new knowledge. Our ideal learning programs are useful and practical; they produce immediate results and increase productivity.

Learning, however, may not always be instantly useful or productive. At first, it may even seem counterproductive. What if a learning program were uncomfortable, disruptive, or frustrating and caused you to be unproductive?

This kind of learning typically involves some kind of unlearning. 

Our current reality defies conventional education. When knowledge is fungible, disruptive change is normal, and the nature of change is volatile and ambiguous, learning must include self-discovery. That involves the willingness to question knowledge and explore our blind spots.

First-Person Learning

Let me digress a bit to venture beyond conventional education to explore first-person learning.

  1. What we learn” such as new material or skills or third-person learning is driven by new knowledge. “We know” more to produce better results.
  2. How we learn” such as process and experience or applying knowledge or skills, or second-person learning is driven by doing more. We produce better actions to improve performance.
  3. Why we learn” reveals the hidden drives to be more, expanding “the self” or first-person learning. We increase awareness and learn newly.

Unlike third- or second-person learning, first-person learning naturally requires more time to cultivate. We discover concealed beliefs, assumptions, and blind spots that expand our views.

NOTE: learning theorists often discuss first-person learning alongside contemplative, ontological, or vertical learning. I consider all of these first-person learning. This model of triple-loop learning explores third-person as single-loop learning, second-person as double-loop learning, and first-person as triple-loop learning.

Leaders and Blind Spots

So what does any of this have to do with leadership or developing leaders?

Our entire makeup as humans is the source of all learning and leadership. We learned to be and do “the self” we inhabit long before we understood what was happening. Now we bring that self – attitude or identity – to our leadership as if it is who we are. This unexamined mindset is a major blind spot that shapes our being as a leader.

Only first-person learning cultivates unlearning that reveals such blind spots. Uncovering our blind spots is indispensable during this time of volatile change and greater complexity.

Here’s the rub: refining skill-sets trap us in a fixed and unexamined mindset, which is neither transcendent nor transformational. To grow and transform – adapt to complexity, ride the waves of change, create futures – requires expanding capacity and relaxing our identity, not merely improving skills or enhancing knowledge.

Two such leadership capacities critical for today include learning to learn and uncovering blind posts. Leaders require both to relax their identity in a way that invites new perceptions.

Leaders, who explore their blindspots, reframe perceived threats as possibilities, and can more easily let go of deeply held beliefs or assumptions.

Inquiry and Practice

To distinguish levels of learning, remember these patterns and practices:

Third-person: What I learn offers knowledge or skills to achieve a different result. Practice: Through study and research, I gain a better understanding of tools, applications, or concepts, and become more knowledgeable.

Second-person: How I learn can improve the process with different actions. Practice: Through the application of knowledge, I experiment with skills and topics to improve processes and outcomes.

First-person: Why I learn reveals who I am as a learner, to expand my view or attitude. Practice: Through self-discovery, embodying my learning, I become the subject of exploration. I distinguish and transform my attitudes and views – discovering and unlearning closely-held perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs.

I now experience myself as a learner and discover how my attitudes impact my outcomes.

Future posts will explore how this learning supports different issues.

This initial post introduces readers to this blog’s main purpose: To explore who we are as learners. Through self-discovery, we question and unlearn, rather than hold onto, knowledge. We expand our possibilities as leaders.

Reading Time: 4 min. Digest Time: 6.5 min.


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.