Many leaders are sent by their employers to one- or two-week leadership development courses, often at great expense, at celebrated business schools. Typically, they listen to some fantastic speakers and come back armed with a fattened contact book and lots of ideas. However, those ideas and the course manuals are often stashed on the shelf and, in the face of the first crisis back at the office when old habits and stress take over, forgotten.

Understanding how the brain learns best can enable us to provide leadership learning that embeds and lasts. The first thing to acknowledge is that, as Confucius is believed to have said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” More recently, the neuroscientist John Medina wrote that the more hooks to memory we offer, the greater learners’ recall. This means that providing multiple stimuli, including visual (which is most powerful), audio and emotional, and engaging any other senses possible, will improve recall. Add to this the fact that as Phil Race’s “Ripples” theory states, the primary motivator of learning is “want/need.” If we can relate the learning directly to the workplace, that motivator is activated.

Science has shown us that thanks to neuroplasticity, we can create new neural pathways throughout life through practice and focus, thereby creating new desirable habits. Leadership is fundamentally a collection of behaviors that impact those around them. Learning to identify and then develop these behaviors consciously allows a person to flex his or her leadership style to the situation and the people involved. This process impacts the organization positively.

How can you begin this virtuous cycle? Start by priming the brain with some mixed-stimulus material, ideally some combination of reading, video and interactive exercises. Then, enable the learners to reflect on the insights they gained from that experience. Content needs to be kept fresh and offered in short stints to maintain attention and engagement. The next step is for learners to identify how the ideas relate to their workplace and reflect on trying them out in practice.

In this way, you are providing multiple stimuli to engage the brain: practice and reflection to decide how and what new behavior is needed; emotional connection both to colleagues who may be learning together and to the wider organization in trying out new behavior; and reflection on the outcomes, either with peers or a coach. Repeating this process strengthens the new neural pathways and refines them until they become a habit. At the same time, the less desirable behaviors cease, and those neural pathways gradually fade away, leaving the new, embedded style of leadership at the fore.

We use both online and offline methods to create programs that enable the rich encoding of memory – the more “memory hooks,” the better. Another aspect is the brain’s need to rest in order to process the learning; this is why shorter stints of learning, spaced out to allow consolidation and practice, is also a crucial element. The traditional five-day immersion courses do not allow time for the brain to create new learning pathways or to embed through practice and reflection.

To summarize the key requirements for embedded leadership learning:

  1. Provide opportunity for self-led, small chunks of solo learning using multiple stimuli. Online is a good method for this learning.
  2. Provide reflective exercises that allow learners to quickly try out the new ideas in the workplace or at least to contextualize them.
  3. Ensure that there is a social learning element, whether through interactive workshops, group chat or remote cohort group work. This element is important for emotional connection and feedback.
  4. Design the overall program to be delivered in small chunks, including both online and in-person elements.
  5. Spread learning over time, encouraging practice between more structured learning experiences.
  6. Ensure that stories are integrated into the design, together with plenty of variety to gain initial engagement and continual re-engagement.
  7. Provide support (coaching or peer-led) and encouragement for ongoing practice, reflection and refinement of the learning experience until sound new habits become the norm.

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