Tony Gurr

Are YOU a Committed LEARNing Leader? PROVE IT!

In Educational Leadership, The Paradigm Debate on 24/02/2011 at 2:28 pm

Two CEOs walk into a bar and…


Sounds like the start of a very bad joke…but let’s run with it for a minute.

They sit down and, being worried about how their organisations are doing, they each have a question and decide to pick the brains of the other:

  • CEO #1: What should I do to dramatically increase the performance levels of my staff?
  • CEO #2: How can I dramatically increase my organisation’s ability to learn?

Both questions are quite straightforward but fundamentally different.

Both say a lot about the “mindset” and “values” of the respective CEO – and also the type of “culture” they are likely to create. The two CEOs also clearly have a very different “worldview” – and probably differ quite significantly on “what matters” in their organisations. They might also see their “purpose” and the purpose of the organisation in very different ways, as well.


Don’t get me wrong – the questions both CEOs are asking are “good”:

  • CEO #1 – is interested in “results”. No organisation can survive without these! In education, the results that relate to student learning are our “bottom line”.
  • CEO#2 – is also interested in results. However, she (bet you thought I would say “he”) also has a focus on learning – she has a focus on the learning of her people and sees this as the key to bigger and better results!


The problem is that many leaders have built up their stockpiles of values (and their mindset) in a largely “unconscious” way – and remain “blind” to what many of these values are and the impact they have on organisational culture.

Most of us appreciate the importance of leadership and “leaders” – in terms of how they can determine the level of success and effectiveness of an organisation. However, it’s important to remember that “leaders” do not directly influence that success or effectiveness. Instead, they exhibit behaviours and make decisions that indirectly “shape” how an organisation develops and its culture evolves – and, more importantly, whether “good people” stay or move onto greener pastures!

It is the people who “live” and “work” in the culture that have the biggest say on results.

If the values of most leaders are hidden away – or remain “invisible”, we are going to have a pretty hard time trying to figure out someone’s mindset.

Worse than that – how the hell are we going to try and improve something that we cannot even “see”!


There is a way!

Bob Haas, Chairman of Levi Strauss, has said that there are two essentials required of organisations that wish to be true to their purpose: “The first is the value of people; the second is the importance of values”.

One minute, one minute…let’s think about that for a minute (or two) and dig a little deeper.

People are “engineered” for learning – it’s what we “do” best. If organisations and CEOs believe that people are their most valuable “resource” – then, these CEOs and their organisations should also value the value of learning!


But…yes, you knew it was coming!

Experience has showed us that it is not enough for an organisation or a CEO to “pay lip-service” to the idea that its people are its most important asset or resource; it has to “walk its talk”. This has been evidenced by research into the most effective and elite organisations in the world: research that demonstrates a clear relationship between a culture that values people and how they learn and specific actions and reward systems that build both “community” and “capacity”.

Now, far be it from me to suggest that some CEOs may be acting  like “snakes in suits” (there is a book called just this – a great read BTW)………there are also a great many “well-meaning” CEOs…………..who just can’t see stuff! No fault of their own.


The Solution – CEOs need to GET CONSCIOUS and GET REAL!

The starting point is for CEOs to (really) have a good ‘ole think about “culture”. This is because (in a very basic sense) organisational culture is the “shadow of the leader”.

They could ask themselves a few questions:

  • What is the exact nature of my shadow?
  • How far does it reach?
  • Who does it touch – directly and indirectly?
  • What type of consequences does it lead to?
  • How do others “see” my shadow?
  • How do I know these things?

If the same CEO is “serious” about learning, a few other questions should be asked – and answered honestly:

  • What type of broader culture do I want to drive my organisation?
  • Does learning figure strongly in the vision I have for the culture of my organisation? Why/why not?
  • Do I really believe in the power of learning? Why/Why not?
  • Do I really believe that all people can learn? Why/Why not?
  • Am I clear how much I value learning?
  • What have I learned in the past 7 days?
  • What new concepts and ideas am I using today that I wasn’t using last month?
  • How do I improve and expand my own capacity for learning each and every day?
  • How well do my people currently learn? How do I know?
  • Do my people really understand what we mean when we talk about a “learning culture”?
  • What things are inhibiting the learning of my people?
  • What needs to change for me to create the conditions for improved and expanded learning in my people?
  • How do I know all these?

If the CEO really wanted to push the envelope – she’d also ask herself:

  • What is the “glue” that holds my organisation together?
  • What sort of relationships and social networks characterise a meaningful, productive organisational culture?
  • What shared meanings, values or habits “drive” my people?
  • What can I do to enhance the relationships and social networks my people use to “do business”?
  • How do I know? How do they know?


A FINAL NOTE: Of course, “leadership” is not something just for CEOs!

A lecturer, a teacher, and an academic team-leader walk into a bar…


[It’s quite difficult for me to thank everyone who contributed to this list of questions – I have “gathered” them over many years, from many people and even more books or articles. To mention a few – Terry O’Banion, Peter KoestenbaumEdgar Schein, Steven Bowman, Peter BlockMarcia Connor, and Ziya Selçuk. My special thanks also to John O’Dwyer – for reminding me to “get real” recently!]

  1. How do you integrate the individual learner’s insight, gained from day to day living, into this model? How do CEOs understand when the learner – understood, in this sense, both as themslelves and members of their team – has an insight to share? Your point here is interesting: what I also notice from your blog is that other bloggers are still obsessed with the CEO/ teacher/ as the individual disseminating information. Seems to contradict what you say here. Greetings from a jetlagged insomniac

  2. LOL – Mmmmmmmm. A “post” is coming. But, what do others think?


  3. It’s an amazing piece of writing in favor of all the internet users;
    they will take advantage from it I am sure.

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