By Tony V. Zampella, CEO and Designer at Bhavana Learning Group

Leadership development today, points to learning. But what kind of learning? Many programs offer training for skills, or study for new knowledge, all of which is useful, practical, and tends toward immediate results, and provides greater productivity.

Learning, however, may not always be instantly useful or productive. What if learning, at first, even seemed counterproductive? What if it was uncomfortable, disruptive, or frustrating? Would you avoid or embrace this kind of learning?

And what if that sort of learning questioned or confronted our self-perception? Caution, we are entering an unlearning mindset.

In the current reality where knowledge is fungible, disruptive change is the new norm, and the nature of change is volatile and ambiguous, learning now involves self-discovery, and that involves the willingness to be challenged.

First-Person Learning

Let me digress a bit and suggest that conventional education, typically, is externally focused, as follows:

1) To acquire knowledge or “what we learn” such as new material or skills. This third-person learning is driven by new knowledge in order “to know” more to produce better results.

2) To improve performance or “how we learn” we engage the process and experience of applying knowledge or skills. This second-person learning is driven by “experiential learning,” or by doing in order to engage better actions.

Studying new material, training for new skills (third-person learning), and experimenting with or improving actions and outcomes (second-person learning) is useful. Both lead to nearly instant results. While both deal with aptitude, neither deals with attitude or offers new insight of who is learning. This reinforces an unexamined mindset, from what philosophers term cognitive blindness: we are unaware that we are unaware.

3) Only first-person learning “why we learn” to accesses “the self,” which expands the capacity to become aware and to learn newly. First-person learning examines concealed beliefs, assumptions, and blind spots to expand our views. Unlike third- or second-person learning, first-person learning naturally requires more time to develop.

NOTE: learning theorists often discuss first-person learning alongside triple-loop, transformative, ontological, or vertical learning. For this blog, I’ll consider all of these as 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. Our work in first-person learning comes from the perspective of the learner (first-person) rather than the learning (triple-loop). If you can make that adjustment, this diagram supports greater understanding.

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. Consider that we learned to be and do “the self” we inhabit, long before we understood what was happening. Now we bring that self – context or mindset – to our leadership as if it is who we are. This unexamined mindset is a major blind spot that shapes our being a leader.

Only first-person learning encourages unlearning that reveals such blind spots and offers access to growth. Uncovering our blind spot to develop our mindset is indispensable during this time of volatile change and greater complexity, as professional skills have a half-life of five-to-seven years and are diminishing fast.

Here’s the rub: refining skill-sets trap us in a fixed mindset — one that leaves our mindset unexamined — which is neither transcendent nor transformational. To grow and transform – adapt to complexity, ride the waves of change, create futures – requires expanded capacities, not merely improving skill-sets.

Two of these leadership capacities include learning to learn and uncovering perceptions. Leaders require both capabilities to shape context: to learn newly and become open to new perceptions.

Leaders, who act beyond reflexive perceptions, reframe perceived threats as opportunities. This requires letting go of deeply held beliefs or assumptions.

Assessing Development Needs

To distinguish levels of learning, consider this scenario: I have a pattern of financial concerns. These are persistent and likely concealed by a blind spot. Let’s apply each learning approach to an aspect of “my money” issue, as follows:

Third-person: I learn What training or skills I need to achieve a different result with my money. Through study and research, I gain a better understanding of tools, applications, or concepts, and become more knowledgeable about my finances.

Second-person: I learn How I can engage my issue directly with different actions. I begin to invest, save, and budget, to leverage the money I earn. This approach invites me to experiment with skills and topics, improving processes and outcome.

First-person: I learn Why money seems so important to me. What is my view or attitude toward money? What does it represent in my life: beliefs about security, safety or value, or self-worth? This approach engages me as the topic and money as the outcome. I distinguish and transform my attitudes and views – discovering and perhaps unlearning closely held perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs.

In a first-person inquiry, a new view emerges – a new relationship to money and finances is now possible. I now experience myself as a learner and discover how my attitudes about money impact my outcomes.

With first-person inquiries, we discover attitudes (who and why we are) and actions (how) that produce unpredictable results (what) – all previously concealed from us. Notice the learning trajectory begins with an external study of a topic (what), then to our actions and process (how), and then to an as-lived experience or attitude (why) into my being.

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, and ways to unlearn and create contexts for examining, rather than holding onto, knowledge – to expand our leadership


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella 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 wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.