The title of the presentation I gave this past Wednesday was “Leading your Team as a Life Long Learner,” and, as I’ve confessed to you (and to the participants), I didn’t initially reflect on the title of the presentation – probably because it wasn’t a title of my own making meant to capture what I intended to focus on in the presentation – until I was a couple weeks out from the day and I had to really start jamming or else disaster would ensue. Once I put my attention on the title, which I assumed was meant to signal to me what the workshop organizers intended me to speak about, I realized that there were some interesting implicit propositions hidden behind the title. I realized that perhaps I wasn’t just meant to provide some sort of generalist presentation about lifelong learning – What lifelong learning is, why it is important, how you become a lifelong learner, etc. but to make some strong connections between how developing one’s self as a lifelong learner makes one a better leader in the workplace.
(I should perhaps offer an additional confession and let you know that left to my own devices I’d not have chosen to frame the presentation in this way. I’m resistant to the instrumentalization of learning, by which I mean, for me lifelong learning is about committing one’s self to developing as deeply as possible throughout the human life course in order to become the fullest human being one can be, not just about acquiring the knowledge and tools necessary to be a good citizen, a productive member of society, or a good team leader, though a derivative outcome might be that one becomes a “better” leader, a “better” citizen, etc.)
So, let’s just say that I found myself in a bit of a quandary because I realized that I had been invited to facilitate a learning experience that had certain implicit outcomes attached to it and that these outcomes weren’t the ones I would have chosen to design a learning experience around. As well, I realized as I pondered the propositions hidden behind the title that I didn’t resonate to the propositions, nor to the title, but that some others did resonate to the propositions and the title and that I had been offered and accepted the opportunity to facilitate a learning experience to which others were committed and that I had to find a way into fulfilling my obligation which (hopefully) met the participants’ needs but also allowed me to work from a place of personal integrity.
When in a quandary such as this, I try to remember to do the following: Calm down and breathe so that I can slow time and stay open rather than close up; and move my mind to a more capacious space, that is, find a way to shift my thinking so that it is expansive enough to contain and hold together the different, seemingly incommensurable ideas or assumptions I am feeling muddled by.
In the case of the presentation on “Leading your Team as a Life Long Learner,” this meant that I needed to take on the propositions hidden behind the title and spend some time pondering what I think makes for a good leader, and how my conceptualization of lifelong learning might connect with my emergent model of what it means to be a good leader, as well as what might be meant by “team,” and what my experiences have been as a member and leader of various teams, and what has worked and not worked for me and for others. As well, I needed to spend some time soberly examining my resistance to the propositions hidden behind the presentation title, thinking critically about my own conceptualizations of lifelong learning, leadership, etc., asking myself: Where do my strongly held ideas come from? Why do I hold them so strongly? Why do I feel resistance to other ideas? What would happen if I tried on other ideas?
What began to emerge as I did this critical self-reflection work was the insight that perhaps the best way into the presentation was to invite the participants to engage in reflection and discussion around some juicy questions that grounded them in their own experiences as learners, because for any learning to be truly meaningful, transformative, and powerful it must be fundamentally about the project of developing and becoming who we want to be in the world, and each individual must discover and enact this ongoing process on their own behalf. (Perhaps a “good leader” is one who can support others in their own self-determined and directed process of deep learning and development.).
So, here are the questions we — the presentation participants and I — reflected upon, did some free-writing around, and had a fantastic discussion in response to:
- In your own travels through your life course, how would you describe yourself and your experiences as a learner? How have you changed as a learner as you’ve grown into adulthood?
- How do you envision yourself as a learner as you grow even older?
- What are some of the best learning experiences you’ve had? And what are some of the not-so-good learning experiences you’ve had, and why?
- What, in your experience and to your way of thinking, differentiates the best from the not-so-good learning experience?
- What excites you about learning? What scares you about learning?
- How do you know learning is happening, in yourself or in others?
- When you are engaged deeply in learning, how does it feel?
These are the kinds of questions one might contemplate periodically – annually, at the start of the school year, perhaps? Or on the occasion of one’s birthday? Or maybe before taking on a new, huge opportunity or adventure? Wouldn’t it be cool to be 86 and look back over forty year’s worth of journal entries in response to these questions, to get to witness one’s self learning and developing over time?
I’d invite you to engage these questions. And if you’d like to share what you discover, here’s the place to do so.