Why leaders never stop learning

Successful leadership means upgrading your capacity to navigate a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty says Mike Vessey, managing partner of MDV Consulting

“You can teach an old dog new tricks,” says Mike Vessey, managing partner of MDV Consulting. “However hard it is, you can reinvent yourself.”

The knowledge that underpins that view, and manifests itself in MDV’s development work with leaders of all ages, is that humans’ capacity to change how they think, relate and manage themselves, can continue to be grown throughout life. “It’s welcome news that neuroscience indicates we can grow our sense-making capacities well into our seventies,” says Vessey. “And both theory and experience tell us that there are much better ways than leaving it to chance.”

The development that Vessey promotes enables people to remain effective in conditions of uncertainty. And it does not treat individuals as vessels of fixed capacity into which you pour knowledge until full. “I use the analogy of a smartphone,” says Vessey, “Rather than adding more and more apps, we upgrade the operating system so the whole thing works more effectively. And we need that for today’s world, in which everything is potentially more interconnected, more complex and perhaps more fragile.”

Adult development and neuroscience ideas inform MDV’s work helping leaders and teams grow the capacities needed to thrive in complexity. Developmental practices applied to daily challenges, under the right conditions, create new neural pathways. So, different ways of thinking, doing, and being become natural and a more sophisticated approach results.  Pointing at specific practices makes the process of development a conscious and more certain one.

“Habit breaking and habit forming is hard – we get stuck so need help. We would do that if going to a gym, and it’s similar for our development,” explains Vessey.

In order to lighten the burden on learners and our planet, and make the most of hybrid working, these development practices are now available online as part of a blended learning approach.

Based on the ‘best of the best’ of adult development research, a group of practitioners at MDV have identified four capacities which differentiate how successfully a person responds to complexity and uncertainty.

Complexity processing

Today's leaders live with an onslaught of data. Making sense of this complexity and staying adaptable is crucial.  For example, when making a strategic decision, how many factors can one relate together, rather than processing one at a time?

“Helping leaders to recognise context is important,” says Vessey. “There’s no 'one size fits all' approach. A leader has to assess what any given situation requires from them and adapt responses once they’ve started making sense of the problem.” The Cynefin sense-making framework by Dave Snowden is one approach MDV uses to help leaders learn. It sets out four decision-making contexts or domains – clear, complicated, complex and chaotic – each of which require different approaches.

Fluidity of thinking

As the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said in the 1930s: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Despite what populist politicians might claim, there are rarely simple, 'either/or' solutions to problems. For example, leaders are balancing short-term needs with long-term goals or weighing up empowerment and control in the case of a disparately located workforce. “These tensions are tricky to navigate,” says Vessey. “Being able to reframe your thinking and construct different approaches to problems opens up new opportunities.”


Change and development requires a degree of introspection, points out Vessey: “we have to see and step away from habits that no longer serve.”  He adds: “Leadership is learning. If you really want to lead, rather than just manage the status quo, you need to embrace the journey.  Experimentation and a willingness to fail are a key part of that. Any transition is unsettling but the rewards are immense.”

Perspective shifting

It takes nuance to navigate the emerging possibilities in business, and high-functioning leaders actively seek out a variety of different perspectives, including seeing issues from other people’s points of view.

“A favourite we use to help with this is the empty-chair exercise,” explains Vessey. “Can you move to a different seat to view and understand from someone else’s perspective? Can you now stand up and get a third-person perspective, looking at the space between the two characters and assess their relationship? There’s even a fourth perspective where you are able to bear witness to the filters through which you are making your observations.”

Ultimately, MDV aims to leave a lasting legacy for clients that delivers holistic benefits. The most satisfying feedback for Vessey’s team is that: “I'm not working any harder or smarter, but I’m in better flow with the work that I'm trying to do. We’re having different types of conversations to resolve issues, not simply repeating past patterns.”

Changing expectations of leaders

Work is likely to be very different in the future and expectations of leaders, partly facilitated by the pandemic, have changed. This work, and the development required to be equal to the task, require skilful attention - the skills to acknowledge we’re in a complex space and still settle people’s anxieties – to experiment and learn from failure when we live in a very judging world that doesn't respect failure.

MDV’s research highlights 10 priorities driving these changes in leadership expectation:

  1. The ‘human face of leadership’
  2. Leadership in uncertainty
  3. Making sense of complexity
  4. Principles/values-led leadership
  5. Wellbeing in the workplace
  6. Trust and empowerment
  7. Navigating polarities
  8. Personal resilience
  9. Inclusive leadership
  10. Communication in a virtual world

Learn more about how you can develop the capacities for complexity and try online developmental practices to start your upgrade journey.