How leaders learn best

The problem with traditional leadership development

It might come as little surprise that leaders spend little time on their own development. A 2018 study by Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria found that CEOs were spending less than 3% of their time in total on their own development. So what are they spending their time doing and what value does it have?

Mumford, Campion and Morgeson (2007) summarise leadership skills as falling into 4 categories, cognitive, interpersonal, business, and strategic, with the importance of each changing depending on the seniority of the leader. They conclude that the development of senior leaders needs to place particular emphasis on strategic skills such as understanding complexity and dealing with ambiguity.

How effective are traditional leadership programmes in building these critical strategic skills? Research shows that “the role played by training and other formal programs is relatively modest in comparison to other kinds of experiences”, but why is this? Is formal development fundamentally flawed? On a practical level, who is skilled and experienced enough to deliver this training? Further, how would effective training be designed and delivered? Buckley and Caple (2009) describe a four stage model for training that comprises investigating the need, designing, conducting and evaluating training. If the situations we are attempting to train people for are complex and ambiguous, how can it be effectively investigated, designed and its results assessed?

In recent years, there has been increased emphasis on eLearning for leaders, often bite-sized, easily-digestible content that can be accessed easily and on-demand. A 2018 review of the effectiveness of eLearning in leadership capacity building identified scenarios in which the formal digital style eLearning might have benefits:

  • Familiarisation with pertinent information
  • Experiential learning through simulation to build cognitive and technical skills
  • Provision of cognitive aids such as check-lists and manuals.


Whilst these scenarios would fit the criteria for leaders to develop cognitive skills, and might help in building some business skills, the pre-determined nature of this type of learning offers little in building the strategic or interpersonal skills also required of leaders.

Experiences outside the workplace are an integral part of many leadership development interventions. Secondments and attendance at networking events and conferences are a regular feature that provide an opportunity for senior executives and leaders to engage in informal and unplanned experiences that are important to their development. However, what exactly are leaders learning about in these situations? Colin Beard (2006), an expert in experiential learning, talks about positive learning experiences involving “high reality” – given that these events are highly planned and choreographed and presentations prepared in advance, are they really providing the sort of unplanned, high reality experiences leaders need?

In considering the attendance at a conference or event, we should consider the scenario in which the leader is placed in addition to the content they consume.  Leaders will have an opportunity to practice and improve their interpersonal skills through engaging with others, whilst content from atypical sources might broaden general awareness and provide insights through learning about the experiences of others. It should also be considered however that these are not necessarily learning-oriented events and may not have a structure that facilitates effective learning.

How leaders really learn

Mumford, Gold and Thorpe (2010) describe the importance of “informal and unplanned experiences” to leadership development, with the leaders they spoke to describing them as “explicit, powerful, relevant and realistic” and as “the main source of their development”. This is incredibly important for a number of reasons:

  • It helps us understand the scenarios and situations that are really shaping the development of leaders
  • It increases the learning opportunities for leaders from just 3% of their time to 100%
  • It guides where we should be directing our focus and resources to support these leaders


Whilst this research tells us that the opportunities for leadership learning are all around us in the workplace, we still need to work hard to ensure that these experiences are turned into real learning and positive outcomes. There are inherent risks that leaders will learn bad lessons, come to ill-informed conclusions and make the wrong choices!

In order to maximise the learning potential of these experiences it is vital we put in place interventions that follow an experiential learning model such as Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle, providing opportunities for reflection and experimentation in addition to the actual experience.
Kolb’s experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four-stage learning cycle in which the learner ‘touches all the bases’:

  1. Concrete Experience – a new experience or situation is encountered – typically the ‘unplanned or informal experiences’ that leaders find so valuable
  2. Reflective Observation – reflection on the experience, particularly noting any inconsistencies between the actual experience and prior understanding
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation – reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept indicating the person has learned from their experience
  4. Active Experimentation – the ideas are applied in the real world to see what happens and generate new concrete experiences


It is important to recognise that experiential learning is an integrated process with each stage being mutually supportive of and feeding into the next. It is possible to enter the cycle at any stage and follow it through its logical sequence. However, effective learning only occurs when a learner can execute all four stages of the model. Therefore, no one stage of the cycle is effective as a learning procedure on its own.

The role of VMAX coaching in supporting leadership learning

There are many different ways of describing coaching. Gallwey’s (1974) assertion that coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance” is inspiring, but somewhat abstract, where as Parsloe, Newell and Leedham (2016) help us understand that, more practically, coaching consists of “very focused, confidential and ideally voluntary conversations that follow a process that helps learning to occur”.

What is not in doubt is that coaching is there to support a process of learning through experience in order to improve performance. Grant (2002) describes workplace coaching as a “solution-focused, result-orientated systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance and the self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee.” Coaching from VMAX places a clear emphasis on the role of coaching to address the performance of an individual in the context of organisational demands – we regard coaching as a tool to deliver organisational, as well as individual, performance improvements.

Put simply, coaching from VMAX helps leaders navigate Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle – providing rigour and focus to the stages of the cycle they would, without support, neglect. VMAX coaching provides a safe space for deep reflection on the situations they have encountered and the difficulties and dilemmas they are facing as a result. VMAX coaching provides the challenge to turn these reflections into real learning that stretches leaders in their understanding of themselves, their teams and the wider business. VMAX coaching then provides the impetus to take action and encourages accountability in completing those actions and bringing them back into a “laboratory of learning”.

When leaders are struggling to find the time to commit to formal development, budgets are stretched and face-to-face work is difficult, VMAX coaching provides the most effective method of turning every leadership experience into deep learning, positive action and improved performance.

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