The Agile Learning-Leader: Everything you want to know about Learning Agility but were afraid to ask

Updated: Feb 9

Learning Agility is said to be one of the critical predictors of high-performing leadership. So, David & Julie ask, are you an agile learning-leader?

Learning Agility & The Agile Learning-Leader

If you want further insights into your ability as an agile learning-leader, we invite you to take our FREE proprietary self assessment, which is informed by the science detailed in this blog. All you have to do is complete the enquiry form and we'll give you access, no questions asked. You might also enjoy our blog on Learning Agility and links to the Digital Workplace.

In reading this blog, we invite you to consider the following principle (proposition of the minimum - adapted from Liebig's Law of the Minimum:

David's Law of the Minimum
As a leader, your ability to adapt, to thrive, to remain relevant in the world, is constrained by the scarcity of your limiting knowledge, skills, experiences, time, drive,and trust - D. Griffiths

What is Learning Agility?


According to organisations such as the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), learning agility is a mind-set and corresponding collection of practices that allows development, growth and the utilisation of new strategies to solve increasingly complex problems.


Regardless of view, at its heart, Learning Agility is about an individual's:

  • awareness of the need to learn

  • motivation to learn

  • ability to learn

In other words, it is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. Significantly, a manager, leader or follower's awareness, motivation and ability to learn is crucial in volatile, complex, ambiguous, emergent and non-linear environments. 

The formula for Learning: P+Q+R=L | Not anymore: P+Q+R+S=L


Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning, proposed that P (what you know or programmed knowledge) + Q (questioning what you know) + R (Reflection) = Learning [note - Revans originally proposed P+Q=L, but it has since been adapted]. However, thinkers such as Revans missed a critical element, S (speed).

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, reports macro-environment uncertainty as being 1.5 standard deviations above historical averages.

Critically, in complex or uncertain environments, it is not enough to have awareness, motivation and ability; it is the speed at which the leader anticipates and responds to environmental changes that both limit their performance and level of agility.

In the new world, it’s not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.” – Klaus Schwab 

We need to become increasingly comfortable with uncertainty and change, which is a constant feature of the world we live in. Where there is volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), outcomes cannot be foreseen and the past cannot predict the future. Success in this VUCA world, requires the mastery of our ability to adapt and learn. In this new world, our current skill-set is of secondary importance to our ability to learn new knowledge, skills, and behaviours to equip us to respond to future challenges.


According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, there is a growing global demand for "active learning & learning strategies" as well as "complex problem-solving" and "leadership and social influence" skills.


A wide range of occupations will require a higher degree of cognitive abilities – such as creativity, logical reasoning and problem sensitivity – as part of their core skill set. More than [52%] of all jobs expected to require these cognitive abilities as part of their core skill set in 2020 do not yet do so today, or only to a much smaller extent.

(WEF, Future of Jobs, 2018, p. 24)


Ultimately, we are saying that Learning Agility directly informs personal, organisational and societal competitive advantage.


Not convinced? Consider Gause's Law, where two species competing for the same limited resource cannot coexist at constant population values. In other words, two teams, organisations or communities competing for advantage need to adapt - innovate - to thrive in the face of competition. If you don't adapt, you will become excluded from the competition, in other words, you become irrelevant.

“There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” – T. H. White

The dynamics of Learning Agility and the Agile Learning-Leader


Learning Agility requires the learner to consider their awareness, motivation and ability in the context of:

  • Novelty

  • Adversity

  • Complexity

  • Difficulty

  • Diversity

  • Uncertainty

  • Accountability

  • Non-authority

It doesn't take much to draw inferences between the WEF's Skills Outlook (above) and Learning Agility as an overarching concept.


Furthermore, according to companies such as Korn Ferry, an agile learner does four things well:

  1. They are critical thinkers who examine problems carefully and make fresh connections.

  2. They know themselves and are able to handle tough situations.

  3. They like to experiment and can deal with the discomfort of change.

  4. They deliver results in first‐time situations through team building and personal drive.

An overview of some of the science underpinning Learning Agility & the Agile Learning-Leader


The science behind Learning Agility is as broad as it is deep. There are links to self-determination and motivational theory, where the learner-leader needs to experience competence, autonomy and relatedness to both learn and learn quickly. 


Motivation to learn links to both pedagogy and andragogy (adult learning). Specifically, how the understanding of why one is learning impacts the depth, security and completeness of learning. Here we are speaking of the development of learning as a skill, which we see as being the application of learning under pressure (e.g. demonstrating awareness, motivation and ability in a pressurised work environment).


Learning Agility: knowledge as a skill

Overview of andragogical (adult learning) principles:

  • learner’s need to know why they need to learn

  • self-concept of the learner (autonomous, self-directing)

  • prior experience of the learner (mental models)

  • readiness to learn (real world context)

  • orientation to learning (problem centric)

  • motivation to learn (intrinsic value, personal payoff).

Knowles et al., The Adult Learner, 2015 p. 4


The agile learner needs to seek out and consider requisite variety in their decision-making and problem-solving experiences, a concept covered by the Law of Requisite Variety, and discussed in our recent review of Matthew Syed's Rebel Ideas.


The need to seek out a variety of opinions (opposing ideas) also links to risk and the limitation of unintended consequences in leadership decision-making - for example, see the International Risk Governance Framework's guidance on stakeholder engagement for complex environments (click the image to got to the IRGC website).

Self-directedness (non-authority driven actions) links to learner maturity, cognitive learning styles, and the concept of field-dependence & field-independence, as well as internal and external locus of control.

"...the behaviours exhibited by field-independent types are most often those ascribed to more mature adult learners: independent, critical reflection, goal orientated, self-organising" (ibid, p. 194) [but] "...successful independent learners, cited networks of learners as their most important resource. Field-dependent persons might be more likely to develop networks" (ibid, p. 195)

The agile learning-leader needs to blend three learning perspectives (e.g. see Mayes and de Freitas, 2004): 

  • associationist (relating or hooking learning to past experiences as building blocks for new learning or unlearning)

  • situative (positioning the learning in real-world application)

  • cognitive (thinking about how to learn and constructing meaning through activity)

Flow States | difficulty & ability

In the field of psychology, flow states (the speeding up of time), with their links to the concept of a 'Good Life', are about stretch goals and ability which link to 'drive' or intrinsic motivation and Daniel Pink's interpretation of self-determination theory (Mastery - Autonomy - Purpose).


Maturity in learning and agility means considering the difference between Higher-Order and Lower-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS & LOTS) - for example, Allyn & Bacon's taxonomy for learning (2000), Anderson & Krathwahl's adaption of Bloom's taxonomy (2001), and the Three Storey Intellect Model (various).

Learning Taxonomies | HOTS & LOTS

What next: ready to learn about your abilities as an Agile Learning-Leader?


If you want to know more about Learning Agility and the Agile Learning-Leader, complete the enquiry form and we'll give you access to our proprietary self-awareness report. The rest is up to you.


Want to understand more about our research?


You can also read our peer-reviewed research into Learning Design and Assessing Employability Skills.

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