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Taking a step into the unknown: embracing continuous learning

  • October 2016

Taking a Step Into the Unknown: Embracing Continuous Learning

Transforming Leadership (2/4)

In a world of VUCA, how will we lead our organizations, our teams, and ourselves? If we are to succeed in an environment of profound change, we will have to let go of old routines and worldviews. Thinkers in many fields – economists, historians, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists – are calling on us to reject rigid patterns and embrace a new, more experimental approach.

This a step into the unknown, and for many of us that is scary. It requires us to admit to not knowing, to take personal risks, and to be humble enough to keep learning about ourselves and our world. Yet as we journey into this uncharted land, we still have plenty of responsibilities. Even if we don’t have a map, we must take leadership decisions that honor the interests of our societies, companies, and teams.

It’s worth remembering a little-known Italian explorer who, 500 years ago, had the courage to say: “We do not know”. Today two of the world’s seven continents are named after him.

How do we understand the new paradigm? How do we navigate the day-to-day challenges of the VUCA world while keeping the longer journey in mind? One of the answers comes from constructive developmental theory elaborated by Robert Kegan and others.1 Kegan holds that adults can develop toward higher levels of consciousness, giving us greater ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, manage contradiction and opposites, and engage with multiple systems.

Kegan calls the highest level of consciousness the Self-Transforming Mind – a level where we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority. To engage diverse talent in a time of VUCA, this is an important leadership characteristic: recognizing that someone else can have a different opinion and that we can learn from them, even if they are much younger and less experienced than us.

This means moving away from the accepted norms and hierarchies that managers often rely on in everyday work. Creativity does not thrive in hierarchical structures; different views need to be acknowledged and accepted.

I’ve observed several contemporary business executives embodying this more conscious leadership. One Polish CEO, who will soon turn 60 and has a highly successful career behind him, nonetheless approaches the world with an attitude of insatiable curiosity and openness to learning. By promoting innovation and attracting outstanding young talent, he spearheaded the success of one of the world’s most admired digital banks, acclaimed as the Polish icon of mobility. This points to a key element of effective leadership in a time of VUCA: being authentic and tapping into emotion.

1*Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self, Harvard University Press, 1982

Transforming Leadership

– 1 Navigating a New World of Uncertainty

– 2 Taking a Step Into the Unknown: Embracing Continuous Learning

– 3 Authentic Leadership: Create Some Magic, Go Beyond the Rational

– 4 Five Dimensions of Successful Organizations

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