The difference between learning a new leadership theory and being a better leader

The brain processes explicit knowledge – ‘knowing how’ – differently from the way it processes implicit knowledge – ‘knowing that’. This has significant implications for executive coaching, argue Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A recent article in MIT News reports that neuroscientists have, for the first time, identified the different neural signatures of implicit and explicit learning – the difference between knowing how to ride a bike and being able to remember facts and events. We’ve known since the 1950s that the two processes were different, but this is the first time that neuroscientists have been able to distinguish between the different brain-wave patterns produced by each.

Perhaps surprisingly, we think this remarkable difference is of great significance in the world of executive coaching and leadership development.

Changing behaviours

By the time most people reach senior ranks, they know most of the stuff they need to know to do their job well. We all have to keep up with the latest developments and with new ideas, so we do have to keep cramming more stuff into the poor old brain box. But that’s not the point. What most senior leadership development programmes are about (or should be about) is changing behaviours, not learning new facts; ‘learning how’ not ‘learning what’.

We used to assume that all learning was the same, in terms of brain processes. Then, in 1953, a man called Henry Molaison underwent brain surgery in an attempt to stop his severe epileptic seizures. Given the state of medical understanding of how the brain actually worked and what functions its different regions might actually have, the 1950s procedure was the rough equivalent of bashing a computer’s hard drive with a hammer in the hope of fixing a processing problem. But it was well meant.

The operation did alleviate Molaison’s devastating seizures; unfortunately, it also destroyed his ability to create new memories. He could remember almost nothing from the year or so before his operation and not everything before then; he knew about the stock market crash of 1929 and about World War II, and could remember things about his life, though not with specific dates attached. But he absolutely could not form any new memories. He could not remember what he had for breakfast and he was never able to recognise the researcher who worked with him for decades after the operation. He left notes in his wallet to remind him that his father was dead and his mother was in a nursing home, and this sad knowledge came to him afresh every time he read the notes.

Despite his shaky memory of facts and events from the past and complete absence of any short-term memory, Molaison did retain his social skills: he was pleasant and even amusing company, even though (or, perhaps, because!) he had no idea whether his companion was a stranger or an old friend.

Because Molaison was intelligent and functional in every respect other than his amnesia, he was the perfect experimental subject for neuroscientists. He was also a willing subject, happily performing rather tedious tests over and over again since, for him, each repeated test seemed fresh and new.

Henry Molaison’s loss – our gain

Although Molaison could not form new memories, he could learn new motor skills. He was taught to trace the shape of five-pointed star by looking at the reflection of the star and his hand in a mirror, for example. This sounds simple, but is surprisingly hard. Everything is backwards; when you move your hand the way you think it should go, it goes the other way. You have to train the hand tracing the shape to do the opposite of what it instinctively does.

Molaison learned how to do this, and he got better at it – but he had no memory of having learned the skill. Whenever he was given the task, it seemed to him that he had never seen it before, but, in fact, he was getting better at it all the time, to his own surprise. Learning ‘how to do’ something is an entirely different process from remembering facts and events.

As the experiments progressed it became clear, for the first time in history, that the brain deals with ‘knowing that’ information in a completely different way from how it deals with ‘knowing how.’

‘Knowing that’ we should doesn’t mean we know how

Large parts of our behaviour have nothing to do with ‘what we know’ and can remember. In business, as in life, success is not merely dependent on what we know, it is highly dependent on our behaviours; on how we work with other people. At The Human Energy Organisation, we have long believed that giving business leaders new information – ‘telling them stuff’ – is unlikely to be enough to change their habitual behaviours. And habitual behaviours are what really matter. When we discuss ‘organisational culture’, it is a collection of habitual behaviours that we really mean. The usual management approach to organisational culture is information-heavy; it’s about new mission/vision/culture statements: ‘We take great pride in fostering a culture of openness and transparency.’ That kind of thing. We all know that these things are vital, but saying that we believe in them doesn’t make them happen. ‘Knowing that’ is not the same as ‘knowing how’.

We believe that real behaviours are more important than the best of intentions, and that the way to get business leaders actually to change their behaviours is to allow them to experience what better behaviours might feel like. You can tell people that they need to be less command-oriented and more ensemble-minded until the cows come home, but until they ‘get’ this at some emotional level, their actual behaviours are unlikely to change.  It’s the difference between learning some new leadership theory and actually being a better leader.

Behavioural lessons from performing artists

That’s why we are such committed believers in arts-based leadership development.

Exposing business leaders to top performing artists, so that they experience how these artists work together as an ensemble to deliver an outstanding performance, is a powerful way to help leaders reassess and change their working practices. It gives them an insight into the way in which all great artists sometimes lead, and sometimes support; how performing artists know that the brilliance of their own performance is dependent on the equally brilliant performance of their fellow artists; how an audience (their ‘consumers’) can only be truly won over when the everyone is striking sparks off each other to deliver a great ensemble performance.

Getting business leaders up close and personal with great actors, theatre directors, dancers, jazz musicians and classical conductors is a remarkably effective way to generate such gut understanding and significant ‘ah-ha’ moments leading to real behavioural change.

And that is because of the difference between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’.

 

If you would like to hear more about arts-based programmes for your own team, please do Contact Us

You can read more about arts-based leadership development in the business novel, Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for business and personal success

A short account of how arts-based development sessions work is also given in a series of articles on Culture University

An in-depth account of the dance-related aspects of Dr Powell’s leadership development programmes was published by the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics

Hero Leadership Is A Big Ask: We Need Leadership In Depth

If organisations didn’t have to cope with change, we wouldn’t need leadership – we could simply manage the existing, well-established processes, doing the same thing over and over again in a nice, comfortable way. But things do change, and organisations must change constantly to reflect this challenging fact of life. As the pace of change accelerates, we need leadership of a very high calibre to keep organisations relevant and successful.

When we want to give our leaders new perspectives to equip them for the task, we send them on ‘leadership development programmes’ at business schools. These programmes usually ‘work’: leaders on such programmes are exposed to the latest business thinking and get the opportunity – and the breathing space – to bounce ideas off top business brains and the leaders’ peers and fellow delegates; it would be a poor programme that did not send leaders away buzzing with new ideas. But then these newly-inspired leaders go back to organisations that have not themselves, by definition, moved on, and they are expected to bring about change – sometimes radical change – either single-handedly or with the help of a few, hopefully equally inspired, members of their top team.

The organisation is effectively saying to its leadership team, ‘We know we’ve got a problem, so we’re going to send you on a development programme, and when you come back, we want you to change everything and solve the problem.’

Organisations are asking their leaders to be heroes.

A few modern business leaders are, indeed, heroic, but it’s a big ask; truly great leaders are few and far between. What we need, as well as hero leaders, is excellent leadership, in depth.

Sending leaders back to the trenches

‘Developing’ leaders in this way is a lot like taking the most promising officers out of the trenches of the First Word War, training them in the techniques of modern warfare so that they can become a new type of military leader, and then sending them back to the trenches in the hope that they will transform the military situation. Their heads are bursting with new ideas, but the army is still stuck in the trenches and everyone around them is stuck in the mindset of trench warfare. Oh – and the chiefs of staff don’t agree with this ‘radical’ new way of thinking and still believe that they can win the war in the trenches.

These newly-developed leaders, filled with marvellous new ideas, are unlikely to be able to transform the situation, despite their individual brilliance.

The need for organisational transformation

What is needed in this analogy, clearly, is a transformation of the strategic military situation. The new leaders who have been plucked out of the trenches should be sent, not back to the trenches, but to begin to work with the chiefs of staff, and to go on to work with the army as a whole on a new strategic plan that would get the army out of the trenches and onto a new offensive.

Modern organisations are large and complex and are resistant to change; the existing management, much of the wider leadership and the board of directors (the ‘chiefs of staff’ in our analogy) may still firmly believe that the old ways are best and that the new ways are risky. There can be a lot of resistance to getting organisations ‘out of the trenches’.

Developing the leadership skills of a chosen few is not, in itself, the best route to transforming organisations. We need many new-thinking leaders in place, right throughout the organisation.

Training new leaders early in their career

Organisations tend to offer leadership development quite late in people’s careers, at a time when ideas, attitudes and behaviours are well-established and harder to change – when the individuals already have a substantial degree of alignment with their organisation’s mindset and after their current thinking has been positively reinforced by the very fact of their career success to date. By this stage, they may find it difficult to envisage how or even why they or the organisation should change.

Modern organisations need leadership in depth. Offering leadership development to a wide range of potential leaders far earlier in their career would create a new generation of potential leaders who are thinking about the challenges that they face, and have already begin to think about the ways in which they should adapt to cope with these.

Instead of relying on leaders to achieve heroic feats, organisations would be wiser to develop strong leadership in depth, offering leadership training earlier in people’s careers and encouraging them to step up and lead whenever appropriate.