Practitioner’s Viewpoint: What makes a leader?

Andrew Jacobs looks at what makes a learning leader and it’s not about skill, will or resources.


I recently has a chat with a group of L&D professionals about their workplace and how they could develop the learning function in their business. They talked about their service and the purpose and pride they had in both their work and their organisation. They talked about the channels through which they delivered and how the organisation was now asking for something new and refreshed.
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When they developed a more social approach based on current thinking and challenging the face-to-face culture, the organisation pushed back and confirmed an expectation for a formal course.
What’s the cause?
The reason they were still delivering a traditional offer wasn’t about their skills as a team; they knew their capabilities needed to develop and they had different skillsets and behaviours which reflect the current thinking in the learning industry. 
It wasn’t an issue of will; they had a desire to develop a different offer from the established face-to-face programmes. 
It wasn’t even about resources; they had put budget aside from their traditional face-to-face offer to be able to deliver a revised programme at no additional cost to the organisation.
This had become an issue of authority. As a group of L&D professionals, they didn’t have organisational or social authority to effect the change. The lack of hierarchical authority meant they were still perceived as shopkeepers within the organisation, providing content on demand from a cost basis with expectations around scale and application. Their lack of social authority meant they lacked influence with managers and staff to get buy-in for new ideas.
Testing the theory
I got the opportunity to test these four elements – skill, will, resources and authority – with a group of learning professionals at the recent Learning Live conference and exhibition. The group was split into teams and tasked with producing the best paper plane. Their creativity knew no bounds. At the end of the allotted time, the group tested their designs and they were moderately successful.
They met the requirements of skill; the most skilful team members were asked to produce the best plane. They met the will factor to such an extent that I had to temper their enthusiasm at one point. I gave the group permission to work in whatever way they wanted and, in typical L&D fashion, they worked as competitive teams. And resources? They used lots of paper.
The group applauded each other’s efforts and a winner was agreed upon. The task I had set was to produce the best paper plane and that’s what the teams did. What they didn’t do was establish the business requirement of what the ‘best’ plane was.
In July’s TJ, Donald H Taylor asked where the next learning leaders would come from. I would suggest that it isn’t those with the most motivated and skilful teams, with all the resources they need, in influential roles within the organisation. It’ll be those who demonstrate they fundamentally understand how we can help the business improve on its terms and measures. 
About the author 
Andrew Jacobs is Organisational Learning and Talent Manager for the London Borough of Lewisham. A recognised leader in learning, he is known for innovative thinking about learning, training and technology. Follow him @AndrewJacobsLD


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