Learning as Leadership

October 8, 2009 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

I saw an example of extraordinary leadership this week, but it was such a subtle example that it could have easily happened without anyone noticing it. I was teaching a class to a section of MBA students. We were discussing the topic of how groups can achieve exceptional performance. We were nearing the end of class, and the students were summarizing for me what they saw as the key points from our class discussion. With about five minutes left, I called on a student who began to talk about topics such as the importance of risk and of really understanding the other people in your group. He was making good points, but his points were abstract. I knew, from previous conversations with this student, that the points he was making were more meaningful and more personal than he was making them sound. So I said to him, “Those are good, abstract points. Can you get a little more personal for us?”

Disconfirming Evidence

The student that I challenged took two courageous actions. The first courageous action that he took occurred a few weeks ago: he listened to feedback and admitted he was wrong. The second courageous action that he took occurred in class this week: he told his classmates about learning that he was wrong.

Admitting that we are wrong or sharing it with others may not seem like a courageous thing to do, but in fact, it is quite uncommon. Psychological research suggests that one of the most common of human tendencies is the tendency to look for evidence that confirms the beliefs that we already have. Almost never do we search for disconfirming evidence. In fact, neuroscientists who use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan people’s brains have found that when people find evidence that confirms their beliefs, their brains reward them with pleasurable sensations. In contrast, when people encounter evidence that disconfirms their beliefs, the reasoning areas of their brain activate very little, if at all [1]. People will come up with any justification they possibly can to avoid changing their beliefs.

This is particularly true, I believe, in MBA classes on organizational behavior. Many if not most of the people who come into these classes believe that they already know how humans behave, and they already know what good leadership is. Therefore, when I ask students to tell me their takeaways from a class, people tend to mention the things that came up in class that they already believe.

“Can We Clap for Him?

When I asked this student to get more personal, he talked about how, in his previous job, he thought he was pretty good at leading and managing groups. In fact, he received positive feedback from his leaders and followers, telling him that he was a good leader. However, a few weeks ago in class, he presented his analysis of a case and I challenged him, suggesting that he had not done much analysis after all. This student then went on to pay close attention in class and to discover some approaches to leadership that he had not considered before. He discussed how hard it was to see himself as less effective at leadership than he realized. He described the things that helped him to deal with this idea. And he described steps he was taking to become a better leader as a result. When he finished, before I could say a word, one of his classmates said, “Can we clap for him?”

Influencing through Learning

The other students in the room recognized the courage that it took for their classmate to see his weaknesses and to share them with the class. They respected that courage, and showed it by clapping enthusiastically. This students actions, however, did more than earn their respect. They also showed his classmates what was possible. He modeled learning and humility for them, and made learning and humility appealing. In the words of Amy Edmondson, he created psychological safety for his classmates by modeling learning and humility and making it legitimate, and psychological safety helps groups to both learn more and perform better [2]–in part because they will be more willing to consider disconfirming evidence and to learn from it. In other words, this student influenced others by allowing himself to be influenced.

Re-Thinking Leadership

The idea that people can become influential by allowing themselves to be influenced by others is an idea that we do not hear too much about when people discuss leadership. We often elevate leadership to an almost mythical status in our mind, envisioning strong, confident, assertive people. This student in my class is a strong, competent person, but his finest moment of leadership–at least in my class–was a moment of humility and learning. These actions of humility and learning have the potential to transform both him and his classmates into better leaders than they might ever have become had they continued to look for evidence that confirms what they already think they know.

[1] Westen, D., Pavel, B., Harenski, C., Kilts, C. & Hamann, S. (2006). Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18(11): 1947-1958.

[2] Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2): 350-383.