Why it’s vital to learn while you lead

13 Sep 2021 By Advertising feature

Leaders can often find themselves in leadership roles with little prior experience or training to prepare them. Dr Paul Irvine of Lancaster University Management School explains why learning to lead is an ongoing process

Leadership is a verb: it involves rolling one’s metaphorical sleeves up and getting stuck in. While countless words have been written on the subject, for many people the interface with the practice of leading and managing others takes place on a day-to-day basis in the workplace.

Leadership, in short, becomes an activity as well as an academic enterprise. Many practising leaders are ‘accidental leaders’; they have arrived in their position without training or support, often having been promoted through excelling (or at least showing a degree of competence) in their technical field. 

Leading and managing other people generally requires a different set of capabilities and success in the technical sphere is not necessarily an indicator of competency in leadership. Applicants to our Senior Leaders Apprenticeship regularly mention the lack of training or development they have had for the role they find themselves in. 

But leadership is developed through the enactment of leadership and that wherever and whenever one starts, there is always more to be learned – it is an ongoing process. 

Postgraduate apprenticeship and open programmes in senior leadership, such as those offered by the Centre for Executive Training and Development (CeTAD) at Lancaster, address these issues. They enable those in or aspiring to senior leadership roles to study, reflect and apply learning within their workplace.

Learning comes from three distinct areas. The first is academic study. 

Apprentices are expected to read widely and to critically analyse theories and models of leadership. For many, this will be the first time they will have engaged with much of their study, while others may be revisiting ideas they have not explored for some time, seeing them afresh through the lens of experience. 

Second, the workplace. Leaders come from a wide range of industries, in both private and public spheres, each with their own policies, culture and people. Each is unique, and we find that even people working within the same organisation can have very different working environments which have a bearing on the specificity of their leadership role. 

Third, the leader’s professional background. All students on our courses have a significant level of leadership and management experience and are expected to draw on this through self-reflection. 

Through drawing together these three components, leaders can bring the rigour of academic research to their learning through case studies and action research, and look at their role through fresh eyes, beginning to make informed changes within their workplace from the start of the programme. Over time, the lens through which they look at leadership changes its focus, enabling them to make better decisions and to articulate the reasons for doing so. Their research can often have far reaching consequences, with findings not only informing them as leaders, but being integrated into policy documents, planning strategies, vision statements, talent pool development and succession planning. 

Leaders face different demands depending upon their industry, and their career stage. The reflection and learning undertaken within the three areas above take account of this, enabling the student to develop a truly bespoke learning experience.

Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) has a long tradition of building partnerships and collaborations with organisations. Covid-19 has changed the landscape for many in fundamental ways, with leaders having to provide stability, confidence and reassurance while navigating through uncertainty. It is through smart, agile and well informed leadership that organisations will adapt, survive and thrive.

Dr Paul Irvine is apprentice partnership director for the Senior Leader Apprenticeship at Lancaster University Management School.

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