Developing ‘intelligent capability’ in leaders and managers

Earlier this year I was asked by The Leadership Trust to undertake a selective review of the literature on experiential learning. The Leadership Trust has pioneered experiential learning in its leadership development since it was founded in 1965 and believes passionately in it as the most effective approach to developing the behaviours that leaders need. Although their experience shows the positive benefits of an experiential approach, their clients often ask ‘Why?’ – why does experiential learning work and why is it better than more traditional approaches to training and development?

I may be sad, but I was delighted to be asked to do this work because I have always had an instinctive belief in the validity of experiential learning and my reading of some of the literature seemed convincing enough, but I had never had the occasion to explore it in more detail. Now I did.

I’m sure that most people working in leadership and management development will know Kolb’s learning cycle and many use either Kolb’s or Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Inventory, but how many others have delved deeper into the research that has been done around the whole idea of experiential learning?  There are two particular outcomes of my reading that I was particularly struck by and which I want to share with you here:

  1. The first is what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (in his 1951 book The concept of mind) called intelligent capability (something we now call competent performance, but I prefer Ryle’s term as competence all too often is used to describe the threshold standard of performance). By this he means that it is not enough simply to know rules and principles (theory) without having the ability to use them, nor is it enough to act by habits which have been installed by drill rather than through thought.  Intelligent capability combines criticism and judgement with learnt skills.
  2. The second is a much more recent paper by Bergsteiner and Avery (2014: The twin-cycle experiential learning model: re-conceptualising Kolb’s theory in Studies in continuing education vol 36 issue 3 pp257-274). They propose a double cycle model which contrasts ‘high potency’ (concrete, active, primary) experiential learning with low potency (abstract, passive, secondary) academic learning and shows how it’s possible to select between and integrate learning from both modes to maximise the learning that occurs.
What I like about these two sources is that they combine to show that it is not about making a choice between either the more theory-based academic or practical experiential approaches, nor does praising one mean dissing the other. The best way to develop intelligent capability is to draw on theory and experience in a mutually supportive way. I think most people will recognise this anyway, but the Bergsteiner and Avery paper offers an insightful critique of Kolb’s model of experiential learning and, I believe, the double cycle model adds significantly to it in ways that will help those involved in leadership and management development to develop improved practice.
(I would like to thank The Leadership Trust for their permission to write about the literature review they commissioned.)