Is “Learning Agility” A Necessary Trait in a Leader?

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Just now I was reading an article in the Harvard Business Review about choosing capable and effective members of an organizational advisory board. The article read: “A number of talent-development tools are available to help, including individual director and board assessments that gauge learning agility (the ability to learn from past experience and manage amid uncertainty) and other valuable traits and skills.”

I was struck by the term “learning agility,” which I’d never heard before, and so I looked into it. In the research literature, learning agility is defined as “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.” (These quotes are from a paper by Kenneth P. De Meuse et al., published in Consulting Psychology Journal; see below for the full citation.) “High learning agile individuals learn the ‘right lessons’ from experience and apply those lessons to novel situations. People who are highly learning agile continuously seek out new challenges, actively seek feedback from others to grow and develop, tend to self-reflect, and evaluate their experiences and draw practical conclusions.”

What experiences or conditions promote learning agility? De Meuse and his coauthors write: “The first one is past experience. It seems reasonable to expect that individuals who have lived in a number of diverse locations and worked in a variety of job settings would be more likely open-minded and possess a propensity to learn than individuals who remain in stable, routine environments.”

A second factor is self awareness: “Self awareness refers to the ability to have personal insight and form accurate self-perceptions.” And a third is an individual’s ability to handle complexity: “It is essential that managers invest the time and effort to learn to manage the increasing complexity in the modern workplace.”

Lastly, De Meuse notes the importance of organizational culture in fostering learning agility: “Learning from experience requires one to be wrong (at least) part of the time. A punitive culture inhibits individuals’ motivation for learning. In contrast, a culture that is supportive, entrepreneurial, and nurturing fosters learning and learning agility.”

Very interesting! I’m glad I ran across this notion. Has anyone else out there encountered the concept “learning agility,” and if so, do you find it useful?

(Sources: The Harvard Business Review article is here; an abstract of the De Meuse paper is here. Full citation: De Meuse, Kenneth P.; Dai, Guangrong; Hallenbeck, George S. “Learning Agility: A Construct Whose Time Has Come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. Volume 62(2), June 2010, p 119–130.)

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2 Responses to “Is “Learning Agility” A Necessary Trait in a Leader?”

  1. John gabriel says:

    Hasn’t this been around for decades? Maybe now that it has an academic title it will join the rest of the jargon that business can get along fine without.

  2. Neta says:

    It’s true this has been around for decades. While it sure does sound a bit like a catch-all concept, there is some compelling evidence of its relationship to long-term leader success. What makes this concept particularly pertinent to leaders is that it focuses on a particular type of learning — learning from day-to-day experiences — as opposed to formal learning. If you believe leadership is learned, and you believe that experience is the best teacher, then the concept of learning agility may be worth another look. There is a great series of articles on learning agility in the September issue of the journal Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives…. This journal has contributors from both academics and practitioners, so the set of articles makes for a great read.

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