Transformation not Found in Fortune Cookies

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 07.38.45Looking at our Twitter feed I occasionally mistake myself for a waiter gathering up discarded fortune cookie slips. Naturally, the need to communicate in just 140 characters can incline a writer towards aphorisms; my colleagues and I have posted more than a few ourselves. The trouble is, aphorisms invariably generalise, and it’s rare to find one which does not understate the complexity of human learning, development and performance.

A recent BBC News Business video about how CEOs maintain focus helps build the case against trite nostrums for leadership success. Each of the five interviewees has a distinct take on the route to focus. For John Mackey, Founder of Whole Foods Market, it’s working in short bursts to prevent the mind wandering. Paul Walsh, ex-CEO of Diageo, says it’s being, “very true to a few core points you will pursue relentlessly,” while for Helen Morrissey, his counterpart at Newton, it’s flexibility and openness to new directions. GE’s Jeff Immelt believes it’s a combination of needing, “to evolve the headset where I only hold myself accountable for the things I can control” and keeping, “a clean liver.” For Alan Zeman, Founder of the Lan Kwai Fong Group, it’s not Immelt’s, “cleaning up a lot of elements of your life,” but achieving a work-life balance.

The remarkable thing is not that each interviewee identifies different, sometimes quite opposing principles; it’s the fact that each is expressed with much the same certainty of universal applicability as a tweeted maxim. Yet if we think about their prescriptions, it’s clear that all arise from highly personal contexts. Is it true, as Mackey asserts, that we all work best in bite-sized chunks? How likely is it that someone who didn’t find it easy to relinquish responsibility would identify the need to let go, or who had never awoken with a thick head and a dodgy stomach would identify “a clean liver” as a prerequisite? How many leaders for whom work-life balance came naturally would so vocally proclaim its importance? And isn’t it likely that people who stress the value of keeping the focus narrow or of opening the focus out, recognise a pull within themselves to do precisely the opposite? Each of these leaders has had to overcome challenges specific to themselves and to, as Immelt terms it, “evolve” from their own particularised starting points.

This is a serious business. If learning and development and leadership coaches aim to support this evolution, it is critical that they and their clients understand these starting points. And these are not always immediately apparent. As developmental psychologist Robert Kegan says:

 “all good teachers know, every student comes with a ‘learning past’ that is an important part of his or her present and future learning. Important features of this past – for adult learners especially, and their teachers – include the history of their relationships to the subject at hand and the history of their personal disposition towards the enterprise of learning itself.”

(In Learning As Transformation Jack Mezirow & Associates, 2000)

While I was thinking about this blog the following tweet appeared on my screen:

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions ~ Stephen Covey #leadership”

Baldly stated, transformation learning theory, of which Kegan is a champion and which globally underpins much of the best practice in adult learning, lends little support to the universality of this claim. Whilst a legitimate, even central objective of leadership development is to facilitate the journey to what Kegan defines as “self-authoring” and, ultimately, “self-transforming” capacity, many learners arrive as prisoners of a learning past, denying them the personal agency achieved by Covey. In terms of how they experience life, they still feel very much products of circumstance. This is where structured and personalised coaching comes into its own, enabling clients to articulate and process previously submerged barriers and catalysts to learning and performance.

Covey and personalities like him may provide us with something to aspire to. But for most people, learning about the self in relation to leadership does not come easy. Success is as likely to fall out of a book or to come from a one-size-fits-all approach to development, as it is to tumble from a fortune cookie. If the waiter could leave a tip, it would be, “Fortune cookies are fun, but development is serious.”

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