Innovative Practices in Executive and Leadership Development


It Began as the Search for Truth

Executive development grew out of a university-led tradition known as ‘the search for truth’ – a search that led the discovery and dissemination of knowledge to society for over 400 years.

Nowadays, the challenges business leaders face are upon them so fast, there is barely time to consider research-led wisdom. More than that, the challenges are so new and so unique to their context, leaders have to create the knowledge they need to resolve them.

The urgent requirement for leaders to create the knowledge they need has tipped the balance away from research-led teaching in executive development towards a new form of inquiry-led learning that facilitates creation of the ‘knowledge-for-action’ leaders need, for the challenges that only they know.

Learning as Construction Work

The shift from teaching to learning has already swept through the education sector. Knowledge based on research has not been abandoned but is now used within a process of self-directed learning, together with other knowledge resources to stimulate the construction of relevant and practical knowledge by the leaders themselves, in language they understand.

Learning as construction work, looks like this:

Learning as construction work

Use Learning Power for Strength

The huge advantage in learning as construction work is the engagement, ownership and practical relevance it generates. But to realize these gains, leaders cannot be passive learners – they have to engage their learning power.

The argument for using and improving learning ability can be made easily on the grounds that success in today’s world demands it. The hard part is knowing how to do it.

Models of learning are either too simple (e.g. learning styles), too generic (e.g. sensory systems), or too sophisticated and expensive (e.g. learning agility).

In answering the question, ‘What makes someone a highly effective learner?’ researchers at the University of Bristol have developed a robust and simple model of learning ability, called ‘learning power’.

Learning power has eight dimensions with familiar names like curiosity, sense-making and collaboration. It gives leaders a language for learning and comes with a set of micro-skills that help them learn more effectively. And the good thing is, it’s not fixed. When leaders know their learning power, the research team found it’s possible for them to improve it.

In executive development, we tend to take the ability to learn for granted. We assume successful people are undoubtedly good learners. But from experience, we learn that when successful leaders are more aware of their learning ability, they are better at identifying and closing the gaps. And in doing so, improves their potential to succeed.

For tomorrow’s world, the improvement of learning power has become a vital part of any executive development experience.

Now Leadership becomes Authorship

In the hurly-burly of leadership life, learning and the construction of knowledge-for-action doesn’t wait until leaders ‘go on a course’. It’s an integral part of everyday performance.

And, as it leads to the creation of knowledge, acts of leadership are also acts of authorship.

For senior leaders, the new knowledge they create in deciding what to do is expressed in precisely chosen words and phrases, in either written or verbal formats such as conversations, email, presentations, strategies, announcements and points of views. Their words are so influential it is easy to see how their corporate leadership is also corporate authorship.

As both a metaphor and a practical description of what leaders do, ‘leadership as authorship’ gets leaders to reflect on the way their voice, and especially the language they use, creates the reality of organizational life others come to live by.

After all, leadership is about how we talk and what we say. Yet, in executive development we rarely help leaders pay attention to it.

Seeing leadership as authorship makes it easier for executives to understand their responsibility as a corporate story-maker. They are both the author and the narrator.. In leading the work of their teams, they are the editor of proposals and projects, ensuring alignment with the corporate story-line and the maintenance of narrative integrity.

Noticing leadership as authorship opens the door to the development of a fundamental leadership capability we appear to have missed or at least, taken for granted. And we don’t have to.

Executive Development Redefined?

Learning as construction work, the improvement of learning power and seeing leadership as authorship call for a rethink of established practice in executive development.

In our various roles as leaders, commissioners, designers and facilitators of executive development, how might we use these ideas to nudge and tweak what we do so that future leaders are better prepared for a future in which we want them and our organizations to thrive?


The above article is a taster of what was discussed in a Masterclass aimed at executive and leadership development specialists who wanted to learn from each other and discover new ways of developing future leaders for their own organizations.