Supporting Leadership Learning: From Classroom to Boardroom to Playing FieldOctober 4, 2020
There are as many definitions of leadership as there are people writing about it. To me, a leadership learning facilitator and teaching faculty member, leadership is a body of skills and behaviours which enable the positive holistic development of people and performance.
I have been told countless times that leadership is learned in sport, and I am always left wondering how the speaker knows this claim is true. Sport offers exceptional opportunities for learning leadership, but on its own does not always teach it. Being the most skilled athlete or possessing the most experience in a group does not make us good at leadership – we need to learn it.
My professional joys and challenges all link to teaching effective evidence-informed leadership in formal settings. The purpose of this article is to share what I have co-discovered, with undergraduate students in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and sport coaches completing their NCCP Advanced Coach Diploma at the Canadian Sport Institute, about effective strategies to support leadership learning. The article is designed to support sport leaders in considering how to facilitate leadership learning within their own organizations.
How do we learn leadership?
Most people associate learning with classrooms, grades, certificates, and degrees. I believe leadership learning is possible without parchment and PowerPoint; however, there are some essential features required to enable learning. First, informal leadership learning requires a backdrop of research-derived theory. To continuously improve our leadership behaviours, we need to compare our experiences and beliefs to credible research, whether through academic journals (e.g., Dugan, 2011) or popular press books written by researchers (e.g., Brown, 2018).
Second, we need to practice leadership to learn it. Exposure to good content or theory alone does not trigger learning. Learning becomes possible when learners can actively grapple with and construct changes to what they know and do. To learn leadership, we need a sound understanding of what effective leadership looks, sounds and feels like – then we need to put these new understandings into practice.
Third, we need to invest time and energy toward continual improvement. Leadership learning may begin with a book or a TED Talk, but it demands the learner truly buys into a process of growth. The learner needs to engage in specific goal setting, collect feedback regularly, and use it to refine their learning goals and practice. The learner needs to be an active agent at the centre of these things in the same way an athlete needs to seek development to improve a skill or tactic.
Four leadership learning strategies that work
Sport leaders can facilitate leadership learning through a variety of intentional practices. My top four leadership learning activities are outlined next and expanded upon by coaches and undergraduates who have worked with me. The strategies which enable the most effective learning activity are:
- Effective questions,
- Discussion-based learning,
- Critical reflective practice, and
- Support people before challenging them.
These strategies can be harnessed for developing leadership skills outside the classroom, when learning is intentionally designed. For example, in a sport organization, using these strategies to mentor staff or volunteers could elicit rich learning and I recommend tailoring the classroom strategies I describe here to your out-of-classroom space.
A major tenet of adult learning is content must be relevant and something the learner can put to immediate practical use. Questions like: “How can we apply this in our work?”, “What are the barriers to doing this?” and “What are the conversations you need to have to support this outcome?” link learners to their specific choices and options for leadership. They act as learning accelerators because they invite us to apply and practice leadership.
One of the most important things we can do as learning facilitators and leaders ourselves is engage personally with effective questions. Answering questions and talking about our own leadership learning can contribute to creating a psychologically safe space for learning. Psychological safety is the feeling we will not be made fun of for asking questions, making mistakes, or being imperfect. For the recommended learning strategy I describe next to be authentic, psychological safety is paramount.
Effective questions promote curiosity. They ignite a learner-directed fusing of personal experience with content to be learned, whether in a classroom, boardroom or on the playing field.
Kohler-Evans (2016) encourages spending more time inviting learners to consider who they are, digging into their driving beliefs, core values, and ethics. She suggests that investing time in understanding learners’ aspirations and lives will lead to more authentic learning. This is consistent with my own experience in both university and coach education contexts.
Dave, a coach with extensive leadership experience, says my use of effective questions in leadership class allows him to “add another dimension to my learning.” Dave uses effective questions to link his leadership experiences to evidence-based best practice. His comments are echoed by an undergraduate kinesiologist, Alyssa, who feels my questions in class help her practice increasingly effective leadership outside of class. She says effective questions get her “remembering personal examples and making a meaningful connection to the topic” accelerating and personalizing her learning.
Undergraduate Lindsey says, “most times I actually think of a better answer after I’ve left class than when you immediately ask the question. Posing one or two questions to the class then giving us three minutes to write down some ideas is beneficial.” Lindsey’s comment is supported by McComas and Abraham’s (2004) advice for asking effective questions. Building intentional thinking time into learning deepens and widens student responses by supporting the quiet self-reflection Lindsey describes.
Coach Leslie tells me over the phone, “Your questions used to really frustrate me because I am more comfortable with a right and a wrong answer.” She shared that grappling with open-ended questions about her core values allowed her to refine her coaching philosophy. Effective leadership is informed by core values (Hill & Lineback, 2011). By spending time in the discomfort of questions aimed at scrutinizing her values, Leslie strengthens her capacity to articulate these values, which in turn clarifies and improves her leadership.
Generative questions are one type of effective question, quickly creating engagementby connecting key concepts to learners’ experiences.For example, asking “What is the role of mistakes in leadership?” at the beginning of a module where we look at mistakes and apologies connects learner’s ideas and the course content, keeping learning dynamic and relevant.
In an out-of-classroom context, for example during a team debrief after a major event, it would be effective for everyone’s leadership learning to reflect on and then discuss in small groups a similar question, such as, “How did we process mistakes at the recent event?” This massive open-ended question could generate a long response by one or two team members if posed in a large group. Instead, I recommend carefully creating diverse groups of colleagues who played different roles in the event and giving them a specific amount of time to brainstorm their responses to this question, then inviting each group to summarize their three most important points in plenary. I would translate technical and tactical learning from the debrief into leadership reflection and goal setting. I would have each team member vet their specific leadership goals with a trusted colleague, and then share their specific goals with their direct supervisor, once they were very clear.
In the example above, those in power would need to carve out the time and space to support this reflective debrief and model the translation of an event debrief into an opportunity to set new leadership goals for future practice and assessment. Finally, in some event debriefs I have participated in during my time as a sport volunteer, linking responses to values, strategy and specific leadership behaviours was not included. In the examples I share above, what we are striving for from a leadership perspective is crucial in creating opportunities for practice, feedback, and learning.
Leadership skill-focused questions, a second type of effective question, invite learners to share what they know, think or believe.It is crucial in learning leadership to leverage individual experience and support learners in using it as a foundation for their learning. For example, following the presentation of material on the importance of trust in leadership, learners in many of my classes are asked, in groups of three, to generate a list of behaviours which build trust. Following this small group activity, I support the groups in comparing and contrasting their lists with what the research tells us about this essential leadership behaviour.
In an out-of-classroom setting, you could create a reading group where you meet regularly to discuss and work through applying specific leadership practices recommended by Dr. Brené Brown (2018) in her book Dare to Lead. I facilitated this in the leadership development component of a recent social learning initiative supporting 15 sport organizations in Alberta striving to increase gender equity and leadership growth. The leaders who opted in to this informal yet structured leadership learning experience met every three to four weeks to discuss the application of book’s theoretical content into their professional practice.
In your sport context, a reading group style of leadership learning could mean selecting a book, blog, or series of TED talks, creating a schedule for consuming the content, then discussing its integration into practice. Content could then be applied and discussed in the context of current projects through questions such as: “What do you need to practice or improve to enhance the process and the product?” or “What leadership skills do you feel you need to keep doing to meet the deadline?” When questions like this are posed by people in power, we stimulate and structure leadership learning. Imagine a sport club or organization, where taking time to reflect on and think about these questions particularly against the backdrop of best practice was normalized. I predict deep engagement, commitment, curiosity, and learning in these spaces.
When we use discussion as a learning activity, individual learner’s experiences, points of view, and questions are foregrounded. Discussion is powerful when it is inclusive and allows us to see a situation from a different or new perspective. Discussion-based learning holds the potential to:
- Improve learners’ self-determination;
- Enhance learners’ listening, speaking and reflection skills;
- Increase learner-to-learner empathy;
- Instill an experiential understanding of inclusion; and
- Provide practice in collaboration (Sibold, 2017).
For me, these outcomes are essential components of effective leadership; therefore, using discussion-based learning activities supports leadership learning. I believe students learn more when they feel part of and responsible for contributing to the group. This sense of belonging is something I work to create in every group learning activity I design by structuring features of the activity to be inclusive. For example, when a group is working on a problem, coming up with solutions and posting them on a whiteboard, I ask them to switch roles (e.g. note taker, voice includer, content infuser) each time one new idea is shared, this promotes inclusion of all voices in the task. When groups are reflecting on a question, I often ask them to use a thinking environment, adapted from Nancy Kline’s terrific book Time to Think (1999). Kline provides practical advice for creating and sustaining inclusive discussions in small groups through democratizing the time in a discussion. For example, in group of five, a thinking environment usually includes pulling out a timer and giving each person in the group 90 seconds to respond to the question at hand. In my experience, this promotes active listening and inclusion quite effectively when the questions are open-ended and relevant to learners.
Gurmeen, an undergraduate in my leadership class, says, “Having discussions in smaller groups allows us all to say the things we may be too shy to share with the whole class. This also helps us get to know one another better.” Empathy and inclusion between peers are captured in Gurmeen’s comments. Similarly, coach Carl says, “Discussion pushed me deeper and forced me to explore what I was actually doing.” The intersection of experience and leadership theory becomes a site of profound learning through small group discussion.
Coach Dave finds a discussion-rich learning environment helps his leadership development “by providing a dedicated time and space for me to grow, learn and focus.” Coaches, unlike undergraduates, are often looked to for constant leadership, the right answer, the best decision, and the most compelling vision. Dave says discussion-based learning “allows me a space to be a follower and grow my own leadership, while listening and thinking about others’ successes and failures. The environment provides motivation and excitement to continually grow my leadership style through information I can trust and people I can relate to. I can let my guard down and become a learner, in a trustworthy and comfortable learning environment.”
Coach Leslie says discussion has not been her favourite thing because she likes to prepare what she will say and to think in advance about what she truly believes. “The honesty in those discussions sure makes me feel vulnerable; but the leadership work sure reveals what I stand for.”
Seeing a leadership behaviour from multiple perspectives is foundational to growing it. The undergraduates who contributed to this article all agree inclusive discussion is perhaps the most important learning strategy in our classroom. Lindsey says, “Everyone thinks and learns differently so when we come together for discussions, we end up learning so much more!” This diversity of perspective is echoed by Coach Dave who finds the small group conversations help him develop perspective and fresh ideas.
Outside of the classroom, discussion designed to support leadership learning should not be left to chance. Structuring discussions which enable leadership learning is crucial and links explicitly with the third practice required to learn leadership in any context: critical reflective practice.
Critical Reflective Practice
The lifelong learning skill I strive to develop in leadership students is critical reflection. To be critical means to see from more than one perspective, and carefully designed reflection insists we step outside ourselves do this. To make connections between what we know, need to understand, and are working toward, takes careful reflective thinking. Critical reflection is the intentional processing of what we observe, think, feel, and know. Through surfacing and scrutinizing leadership from more than one perspective, we critically reflect on it. This practice is the cornerstone of authentic leadership development. It enables integration of experience with knowledge and lets us grapple with applying theory in our real world.
Leadership learning depends upon one’s ability to critically reflect and turn reflections into practice. Coach Carldescribes the integration of critical reflection into his leadership practice, saying, “I evaluate situations now through a much broader lens. I think great leaders have a methodical approach. I’ve set goals for my leadership and this means stepping forward into uncomfortable situations at times.”
The students and coaches I have worked with who experience the most growth practice rigorous critical reflection, well beyond the confines of class sessions. Coach Leslie tells me, “I realize many things later – after the class, after the discussions, after some time reflecting for myself.” She uses a building metaphor to describe her view of leadership learning and how self-reflection helps her identify learnings that build the foundation of her leadership practice. “Every struggle adds a Lego piece to the confidence pile – I know this, I am experiencing this.” I believe confidence is developed through effective leadership learning when theory is linked by the learner to their real-world and integrated with their beliefs about leadership and their driving purpose. This kind of confidence is very different from bravado; it is one of the signatures of knowing oneself and understanding how one practices leadership in an authentic way.
Coach Dave believes, “Self-reflection on leadership caused me to look in the rear-view mirror and think about the roads I used to get to where I am. This was the most powerful tool for me, as it caused me to honestly assess styles, approaches and decisions I have made in the past. To my surprise, it also caused me to celebrate successes I may not have otherwise seen. [Critical] reflection has also caused me to be more mindful in the moment, in situations where I’m leading, by raising my self-awareness.” These comments reinforce the value of reflection as the bridge linking experience with theory and consolidating our personal leadership practice.
One of my favourite things to ask learners is about what is affirmed for them in a leadership theory, and what is new or surprising. I find both questions quickly link learners to their own practice while helping them dig deep into leadership course content. These questions could be used in out-of-classroom leadership learning settings to facilitate learning. This kind of reflective space could be created during quarterly check-ins or staff reviews, or structured into regular one-on-one check-ins or mentorship meetings. A group of officials could share what they found affirming or in alignment with what they know, and what they were unfamiliar with or surprised by, in a specific game or performance. This kind of discussion needs to be framed by what we are collectively striving for and make explicit links to best practices while engaging people on an individual level.
Rolfe et al.’s (2001) “What, So What, Now What” model, has been used as a foundation for learning in the Coaching Association of Canada’s National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). It provides a simple framework for moving learners through a systematic examination of what they have observed and felt (the “what”), interpreting what this may mean (the “so what”), and what they plan to do moving forward based on their reflective work (the “now what”).
There are numerous frameworks for reflection you can access on-line which will help people make sense of their leadership skills and goals. The work of Jenny Moon and David Kolb is particularly useful in learning about the role of reflection and metacognition in practical learning. Graham Gibb’s reflective model helps us develop action plans as a result of comprehensive reflective practice. Click here for additional reflective models I have found helpful in leadership learning.
Support people before challenging them
In writing this article, I elected to place this exceptionally important call to action last, hoping if you were skimming the other paragraphs and made it here, you would be searching for answers and support to enable learning for those you are leading right now.
The cornerstone of the best work I do is supporting individual learners in a meaningful way – full stop. The people who have learned with me accessed my support. I think in any context, when someone reports to you, offering support and building mutual trust accelerates learning. My support looks like active listening, sounds like encouragement, feels like vulnerability. It creates a safe environment for engagement. By supporting people, I earn the opportunity to challenge them with questions that enable learning; questions such as: What is your driving purpose? How does what we are reading/watching/discussing show up in your world? Where does it challenge your default settings? or What about this aligns with your beliefs? To enable leadership learning, in any context, figuring out what your people value and find supportive is crucial, and in my experience is the required first step for enabling any true leadership learning.
Believing we learn leadership on the fly, without context or connection to our colleagues, is common – it is sold to us. We are one click away from a leadership guru, book, or slick on-line offering guaranteeing our success as leaders after payment. However, my experiences suggest learning leadership outside of a classroom requires time and practices we cannot buy.
My aim in this article was to describe practices you could use as a mentor, a manager, a volunteer in a sport org to support your group’s leadership learning. When we see ourselves at the centre of the process, rather than as a recipient of knowledge, we increase our motivation and connection to developing and growing our leadership skills. An undergraduate, Mathieu, says, “I feel the overall learning environment is very collaborative and student-driven. Instead of focusing on taking notes and following a PowerPoint, the activities allowed us to be engaged and learn in a more authentic way that is unique to each student. During structured discussions, we related leadership theory to personal examples, and this helped us apply what we learned in a ‘real life’ setting.” This begs the question: Are you creating and sustaining a culture which supports leadership learning?
Where to start
In sport organizations, developing our leadership behaviours without the financial commitment of a corporate professional learning program can be done through thoughtful planning and low-cost high-commitment structure. This is not a task we can scratch off our list in one morning. To facilitate true leadership growth, you will need to invest time, creativity, curiosity and patience in developing yourself and those you lead. The learning journey of you and your people could create a social learning space for folks who buy-in to improving their leadership through intentional practice, reflection, feedback and planning.
If I was a mentor or manager interested in supporting leadership learning, I would begin by asking the people I supervise or mentor to read this article to create a discussion about the core elements of leadership learning and link our experiences to the tenets shared in this piece. I would use the practices I wrote about here to design a structured discussion after reading the article.
Next, I would facilitate a brainstorming session with the group (or an individual mentee if you are doing this work one-on-one), focused on generating ideas about how we could structure our informal leadership learning journey. I would sift through all of the ideas and come up with a plan and share it at our second meeting.
Finally, I would curate a list of articles, TED talks, or perhaps a book, and build a schedule of meet-ups at intervals that are predictable and stable. I would celebrate small successes as we progressed. Professional learning is often something we do off the side of our desks and to achieve deep engagement, the learners need to lead the way with us – that would be at top of mind for me throughout the process.
- Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra – Ibarra’s work is based on the premise that we need to act outside our comfort zone to develop our leadership skills and identity.
- The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson – Edmondson is the go-to thought leader on psychological safety. For me, without psychological safety in an org, no one is going to learn very much.
- Legacy by James Kerr – For those who like their leadership learning in a sport package, this is a terrific read.
- The Science of Leadership by Julian Barling – The book which links us most carefully to current research on leadership; I use this work to structure a large portion of my foundational leadership course at the University of Calgary.
- Greater Good Science Centre – Studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society. Greater Good in Action provides learning activities and exercises you can do in your leadership learning community – I am particularly fond of the Active Listening exercise.
- Adam Grant – An organizational psychologist, and best selling author, Grant is a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. For those who love up-to-date book recommendations, Adam Grant will provide them. His take on leadership behaviour is excellent and approachable, particularly for an academic.
About the Author(s)
Cari Din holds a PhD in Kinesiology specializing in leadership behaviour. She is an Olympic Silver Medallist, a Teaching Scholar and Instructor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. She is also Leadership Fellow at the Haskayne School of Business in the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership and an NCCP Master Coach Developer. Her lifelong quest to understand and develop leadership behaviours that enable positive human development and exceptional performances is nowhere near complete.
Micro-biographies: The coaches who generously contributed to this article are enrolled in or have completed their Advanced Coach Diploma. Dave is the Associate Head Coach with the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns Women’s Basketball Program and Head Coach of the Alberta Basketball U17 Provincial Team. Carl is the assistant head coach of the University of Calgary Swim Club. Leslie is the assistant coach for Alberta’s Alpine Ski Team. The undergraduate students Gurmeen, Lindsey, Alyssa and Mathieu, who offered their important perspective, have studied Leadership Foundations, KNES 311, at the University of Calgary in the Faculty of Kinesiology.
My gratitude for each of these leadership learners shines in a sometimes blinding way, and leaves me wondering, who teaches whom?
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