Experiential Learning for Better Leading

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience and is more specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing” (Kolb, 1974). Hands-on learning is a form of experiential learning but does not necessarily involve students reflecting on their output. It is the reflection on doing that crystalizes the learning.

Henry Mintzberg, a well-known academic and author in management and business has very publically stated and re-stated “You cannot create a manager in a classroom”. Resonating with this sentiment, employers have not been shy in criticising university-based management education for being disconnected from the practice of management, leaving graduates ill-prepared for entering the workforce, let alone high-level management or leadership positions.

In addition, the Australian Business Dean’s Council released a report in 2014 highlighting the need for innovative and experiential approaches to learning, and a departure from conventional lecture and textbook-based approaches. Citing a deficiency in Australian leadership and management skills, the Council’s report stated: “the capacity to develop these competencies needs to be expanded in Australia”.  In an experiential classroom, more attention is paid to developing the skills, capabilities, and techniques that form the foundation of good management, while also addressing the values, attitudes, and beliefs that contribute to leaders’ worldviews and professional identities.

In 2007 Rousseau and McCarthy (2007) made a call for wide-spread evidence-based management education. What I think they were calling for, is not reviewing more research findings in lectures and an increase in statistics savvy MBA graduates, but rather, a maturing of both the way management is taught and how it is practiced. The type of maturity that Rousseau and McCarthy (2007) argue for requires ‘personal development’, self-reflection’, ‘mindfulness’, and the integration of ability for abstraction with practical experience. This type of maturity is hard to teach, but it can be learned – by doing and reflecting on that doing.

The level of maturity that Industry 4.0 leaders are going to require is not the result of age or even, necessarily, professional experience, but an expanding and broadening of an individual’s level of awareness (or consciousness) of both self and environment (context), an ability to recognise and utilise patterns in variables such as people’s behaviour, movement in the market and organisational performance, an ability to see cause and effect in aspects of behaviour and business transactions, and the ability to intentionally direct one’s personal energy (e.g. attention and awareness) in such a way as to increase the chances of both personal and organisational goals being met. In my view, this is what is meant by an ‘evidence-based’ practice of management.

Rousseau and McCarthy (2007) present a number of principles for educating managers from an evidence-based perspective, however, these principles also form the basis of an integrated, reflective learning experience. Experiential learning provides leaders with a robust foundation for evidence-based judgment and decision making by encouraging the following reflective practices:

  1. Think about your thinking: increasing awareness and reflection of how you engage in the process of decision making, or meta-cognition;
  2. Take time to think: create time and space for the practice of critical thinking, incubation of ideas and consideration of multiple, alternative perspectives;
  3. Take notice of your social and political environment and the interdependencies that exist within it: spend time understanding the importance of context and the influence this has on both inputs and outcomes of decision making; and
  4. Develop and nurture a growth mindset: acknowledge the importance of having a growth mindset (Dweck, 2010), being open to continued learning and development.

Arguably, much of this is focused on the inner life of the individual, their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, motivations and other cognitive processes that collectively make up conscious awareness and the experience of the self relative to the external environment. This is possibly the only real means for addressing the current global leadership crisis and responding to calls for a new approach; an approach to leadership that embraces complexity and disruption with an intention for human-centred outcomes.

This new approach to leadership is deeply participatory and needs to be grounded in sensemaking with the leader as storyteller, setting the narrative for the new paradigm on which the transformed organisation will be based going forward. This requires the capacity for active sensemaking and is based on the experience of participating in the process of working in and on the business, the same process of doing then reflecting, that is practiced by experiential learners.

Essentially, research, experienced practitioners and leadership experts are all telling us the same thing: the skills required by leaders in ‘Industry 4.0’ are not those that can be learned from a textbook, a maturity of consciousness is required which can only come from an established practice of reflecting on doing, a practice well developed in experiential learners.



Dr Shari Read is an award-winning educator with a focus on teaching skills for our digital future. As a clinically trained social psychologist and design enthusiast, Shari emphasises human-centred approaches to leadership, management and new ways of working. Her research and teaching in the area of transformation and change management emphasise the capabilities required to lead effectively through uncertainty and complexity.

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