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Experiential Learning Accelerates Leader Development

Knight Campbell
February 22, 2022

Every problem in your organization is probably a leadership problem. Do you believe that? As a leader, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. If people are not in the right seats, not motivated, don’t have a clear vision and expectations, don’t get the right resources, and so on, they will not be able to accomplish your mission, won’t be engaged, and won’t be satisfied.

This is welcome news to me. It means you can fix every problem in your organization by becoming a better leader. So, if great leaders can fix every problem, it makes sense to spend significant time finding, keeping, and developing your leaders.

The problem is, leadership isn’t all that cut and dry. Scholars don’t even agree on a unifying definition of leadership! Great leadership tends to differ depending on personality, situation, and organization. How in the world can we develop leaders from such a wishy-washy construct? Our answer: experience.

Lecture halls are dying

How many times have you heard someone say, “I really struggle to learn new things by doing them?” Probably never. Yet, typically I see a third of each class I attend asleep. People in leadership training seminars furtively check their phones or gaze out the conference room window.

When I taught leadership at the Naval Academy, I took my classes on walks, had students practice leadership in the dorm and report back, and even staged a heart attack in the middle of class to teach combat stress response. Then I started taking students on winter climbs of Mt Washington to experience 100mph winds, sub-zero temperatures, and whiteout conditions. In a challenging environment, all the information about taking care of people, clear communication, risk management, and planning crystallized. I had found the place to teach leadership.

So just experience leadership then?

Not exactly. You have to apply your leadership training for it to work. There’s a lot of science behind how Dr. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle works. On Crux Adventures we intentionally leverage the theory to maximize learning. Experiential learning isn’t one of Garnder’s learning styles like auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. Instead, it’s an all-encompassing approach to learning and… life really. This philosophy allows us to extract every last drop of meaning from moments, extrapolate unrelated topics to new meanings, create new ideas, and enjoy life a whole lot more.

There’s a catch though. Many of us at this point have experienced just experiential learning- those contrived low ropes course games, lava rivers, and trust falls. Those can be useful, but at Cairn Leadership we argue that educators must take it one step further- applied experiential learning. A lot of people focus on the experience, so they make “experiences” up and confuse the made-up experience with learning. “Well Bob, they crossed the lava river successfully, so they must have learned something!” Instead, we view experiential learning as a process to overlay or apply to real life. That’s why the outdoors is critical. Shared adventure offers real experiences and skill building to apply the learning cycle instead of creating a contrived learning cycle.

Experience and meaning

What’s life if it’s not one long string of experiences? A leader who approaches everything as an experience to learn from fosters a growth mindset, which we know produces happier and more effective people and teams. We teach the theory behind experiential learning to our members so they can use it as a tool.

By shifting perspective on life to an ongoing series of experiences, clients can shift their locus of control. Suddenly a bad day becomes a learning opportunity, a botched project becomes a chance to reflect and change. Ultimately, life becomes an opportunity rather than an imposition, people learn far more daily, and leaders become more positive.

Go. Do. Things.

Doing can be scary, but talking simply won’t teach the same way. To move forward in personal or professional life, leaders must take action.

Reflective observation

Here’s where most of us drop the ball. I tried climbing a climb that was out of my skill range the other day. I fell about 20ft on a small piece of protection. It was the first time I was so amped up on adrenaline and permeated with fear that I felt severely nauseated. And yet, only because my job is helping coach leaders to extrapolate meaning through outdoor adventure did I eventually get around to reflecting on what I had learned. The experience almost went by with nothing useful pulled out.

We tend to stay so busy when leading, that we can’t imagine going for a quiet walk without our cell phone. This is a huge missed opportunity for myriad reasons, one being the lost chance to reflect on our day and learn from our actions. We recommend a journal, but you could use anything. Draw pictures, have a conversation with a friend or partner, or have an after-action meeting with your team.

Pro tip: Don’t miss opportunities to reflect. Otherwise, you’ll just keep trying the same thing expecting different results. Insane.

Abstract conceptualization

As our reflection practice deepens, we have to decide what we will do with newly minted wisdom. Sure, I learned not to try hard climbs on hot days with the wrong shoes (probably already knew that). Abstracting is the practice of applying learning to unrelated situations. This was a powerful reminder to ensure I evaluate the full challenge, my team, and my available resources before diving into a new project I’m excited about. This was an important chance to let fear roll over me and come out to the other side focused on safely moving through the next challenge instead of retreating. Research shows a dismal success rate of transfer of training- students generalizing learning outcomes successfully to similar situations. When you pay companies or colleges oodles of money to “learn” leadership, this is a big place they fail. If you don’t connect unrelated events into greater meaning, you miss huge opportunities, and your creativity withers.

Active experimentation

Sounds like the scientific method right? This is the fun part, we are effectively back at experiencing things. The key difference is we have a hypothesis when we jump into the new experience. Through the process of reflection, I might have discovered that when I try to use a map and compass, I tend to match what I want to see to the map instead of looking at the map first. Bad idea. I talk myself into being where I think I ought to be rather than knowing where I actually am. Hmm… I wonder if I do this in business. I’m going to ask my team where they think we are before I assert my opinion in my next meeting. If they all tell me something different, I will be able to apply this new learning. Then I can paint a more accurate picture of our OKRs and KPIs.

Apply it!

Unfortunately, experiential learning has been conflated with outdoor social games and contrived stories. These are not terrible, and they can be useful. Still, they are not excellent. Apply the theory to real-life situations and it becomes a philosophy, a new way to look at the world, and a catalyst for faster more creative learning. At Cairn Leadership, we are committed to applied experiential learning.

Want to cover decision-making? Let’s decide on which trail to take and then dissect the process.

Want to try storytelling as a persuasion technique? Instead of improv, use a story to express your opinion on the best place to camp in the rain.

Whether you join us for an adventure or not, I hope you can apply this theory today. Reflect more, get creative about connecting different ideas, and then put your scientist hat on.

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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