I. Our Practice Shows the Effectiveness of Our Learning.

Twenty-five years ago, Peter Senge published ‘The Fifth Discipline. The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation’. It remains as inspirational and aspirational today as it was then.

Ostensibly the aid sector has embraced the responsibility to learn: There is a proliferation of manuals; ‘knowledge management’ is a formal function in various organisations, we have intranets and ‘communities of practice’, and thematically specialised advisers. We invest a lot in training courses. We want to see more ‘evidence-based policy’ and are struggling with the challenge to ‘demonstrate results’. We are also enthralled by the ability of new technologies to generate ‘data’ much more cost-effectively and to provide us with ‘big data’.

Yet when we look closely at the actual practices on the ground, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that more often than not, these do not reflect the collective learning available: practices are not as sophisticated as they could be, key attention areas are neglected, known mistakes are made again, manuals sit unused on office shelves, we wait for formal evaluations to ask the key questions etc. Many lessons may have been ‘identified’ but are not ‘learned’ and applied. Actual practice is less shaped by the collective learning than by the knowledge, understanding, character, personal preferences, and competencies of key individuals, who may or may not have been good learners. There are two sets of reasons for this: persistent difficulty in being a learning organisation, and sector-wide disincentives.

II. The Challenge.

The learning challenge exists along three key dimensions:

  • Experiences need to be documented, brought together and reflected on; then they need to be reshaped in formats that can be communicated; the insights need to be paid attention to, absorbed and then applied in further practice;
  • Essential learning has to shift from the level of ‘awareness’, to ‘knowledge’, to ‘skill’;
  • Individual learning needs to become team learning, and organisational / network / partners’ learning.

Put together this is daunting but not impossible.

III. Five Fundamental Enablers for Organisational Learning.

   1. The Curious Manager or Team Leader

Observe what managers ask questions about, and you will see what an organisation finds important. Active managerial interest and support is critical. Without it, all efforts and investment will yield limited and temporary results at best.

Imagine managers or team leaders who regularly – several times a week and sometimes a day- ask: What are we learning from this? What must we learn from this? Are we documenting and sharing this? Are we using the available learning here, what have we or others already learned about this? Etc. Not only would this drive the attention to the learning content, it also sends a clear signal that ‘learning’ and applying learning is an important and valued organisational concern and objective.

   2. Make and Value the Time for Learning.

Time is as precious a resource as money. But the word ‘resource’ has two connotations: something finite that we can exhaust, or something valuable that we can invest. Driven by an atmosphere of ‘urgency’ and ‘the immediate’, often self-created and greatly encouraged by modern ICT, we only see the first connotation. But learning takes time: to reflect, to document, to share, to absorb, to apply.

How we choose to allocate our time, is moreover something that is partially under our control: Prior to a renewed escalation of war in Sri Lanka, I had instituted a practice of staff retreats about every 7-8 weeks, to share information and updates and to learn, and plan together. When renewed heavy fighting led to the swift displacement of some 400.000 people, we rapidly scaled up our operational crisis response, tripling the budget and quadrupling the staff within the span of a good 3 months. Notwithstanding the enormous pressures, I maintained the practice of regular retreats. This proved a very good use of precious time: It helped us to integrate new staff and provide them with the fundamental learning needed, to maintain a strategic perspective and regularly assess our positioning within an evolving situation, and ensure our programmatic and organisational coherence. Without it, the external crisis would have become matched by an internal crisis.

Learning organisations do not systematically deprioritise learning over other actions.

   3. Hire and Groom People with Strong Learning Abilities.

The not-for-profit sector has largely reproduced the functionalistic organigrams and command-and-control cultures of the public and private sector, yet without the much more dynamic ‘management’ of human resources that you find in the better private sector companies. In more than 2 decades I’ve never heard any manager talk about ‘attracting and retaining talent’ for example or, in a job interview, inquire about someone’s 'learning journey'. The trend is rather towards specialised jobs, looking for people who have been doing exactly that same type of work for at least 5 or 10 years, and to only call upon them for issues that fit with their job description. When new skills and competencies are needed, current employees are simply replaced with new recruits. If our accounting systems would show the true cost of such practice, we would not manage like this.

Making the working relationship highly transactional creates a false efficiency: On the surface it can give the impression that it attracts the best people. But who is going to be really committed, and give their best, to an organisation that doesn’t commit to its staff, and doesn’t care about their professional growth? Contrast this with the better private sector companies that go ‘talent hunting’, and invest in the systematic grooming of talented people. They make them work successively in different parts of the organisation and/or provide them with well-chosen training to develop skills (including emotional intelligence) they will need in roles of higher responsibility. By doing so, they not only deepen their expertise but also develop a more holistic and strategic perspective.

Mentoring can be a very cost-effective learning enabler. Many years ago, when my better half got her management training, she was told: ‘No promotion until you have trained someone to take your place!’. What an organisational incentive for mentoring - and working together!

We have entered a historical period of rapid and unpredictable change. Organisations will have to be more adaptable and innovative to survive. Old ways of thinking and doing may no longer be appropriate for the new realities. In such contexts, are we not much better off with staff that demonstrate strong learning abilities? Which – for adults- implies the ability to unlearn some old knowledge and practices that are no longer so adequate. That also applies to top management – the potential for an organisation to renew itself is closely correlated with the learning abilities of its the top management.

   4. Focus on Team Learning.

Learning is individual, yet organisational performance is dependent on team and collective effort. Many organisations over-emphasise the individual: We assess the performance of individuals as if that did not depend on wider team performance and a larger enabling environment; we send individuals on training who then can’t apply what they have learned as the rest of us continue with business-as-usual; if we invest in coaching support, it is more for individuals than for teams. Yet there is solid management literature that confirms the superior performance of learning teams. Learning teams thrive when the team leader is a learning leader and a team coach rather than a ‘boss’, and where all team members receive credit for what is a collective performance.

Team learning turns into wider organisational learning where learning is encouraged across units and offices. Silos encourage stagnation. Organisations need dedicated resources (people, money and time) to help document the collective learning and pick up and absorb the learning from others. But such ‘knowledge managers’ or ‘learning resource persons’ cannot get disconnected from their colleagues fully engaged in practical action. Broader ‘communities of practice’, within and across organisations, can be very stimulating if they are dynamic. But to have influence on organisational performance, managers need to take part in them, even if they only do so as ‘followers’.

   5. Pursue Organisational Learning Priorities.

Even if becoming a learning organisation is a strategic organisational priority, the amount of people, money and time that can be invested in it will be limited. So organisations have to set some learning priorities. How do you decide between the learning needs and preferences of individual staff, teams or units, HQ and field-based staff, your own organisation and partners? And between the learning needs of today and for tomorrow? Choices will be inevitable, but making them can be facilitated by exploring three questions:

  • What essential competencies do our people need to perform as effective teams?
  • What learning will take our teams to the next level of quality?
  • What learning does our organisation need to remain a high performer in the face of new challenges from a changing world?

Then pursue your choices with focus, determination and patience. A UK-headquartered peace organisation successfully introduced and mainstreamed a high quality learning-documentation-evaluation practice throughout the organisation. It took five years to get to that next level of quality.

Document the (team- and) organisational learning journey, and the enabling and constraining factors, so that you ‘learn to learn’.

IV. Is there a Business Case for Learning?

The persistent discrepancy between the collective knowledge or learning available and our collective practice, also results from disincentives in the aid-supported sector.

   1. Being Busy.

One big disincentive is the pervasive impatience of international actors that drives short-term thinking and sustains the myth of quick fixes to complex problems. Mixed up with an increasingly competitive environment for limited funding, this strongly encourages action over reflection, the import of external solutions rather than the search for contextually appropriate and locally owned ones, and pressures to claim ‘success’. Increasing scepticism about the effectiveness of aid among public opinion in donor countries will only reinforce this disincentive.

   2. No Serious Penalties for Failing.

A second major disincentive is that, by and large, at the organisational level, we can get away with not learning. Those with the broad cumulative knowledge are rarely the decision-makers, and there is little longitudinal perspective. There is no evaluation criterion for ‘learning effectiveness’ and evaluators are not asked to assess it. When serious programmatic or organisational weaknesses have become visible at some point, teams and organisations argue that they will learn from it. No one ever checks.

In 2016, almost 20 years after ‘Do No Harm’ was published, we still have experienced organisations that understand ‘conflict sensitivity’ as nothing more than ‘potential security risks to their staff and assets’. An organisation can be on the verge of bankruptcy twice in a decade, for spending money that was not secured, yet be bailed out twice by donors without consequences for its failure to learn. We keep spending a lot on one-off training courses even if we know that their effectiveness in improving practice is very modest at best. We know that sustainable solutions require good fit with the context and broad support from local/national stakeholders, yet continue importing solutions. How come that the value-for-money lens does not pick up on the general learning weaknesses?

On the other side, if the aid sector is really about providing effective services and/or creating enabling conditions for purposeful and capable locally- driven action, then, as for the business sector, the customer/beneficiary should be central. But by and large, the intended ‘beneficiaries’ of our programmes and actions have long been powerless or their views have not been heard. How about, for example, asking refugees who have been receiving aid for more than a year, whether or which aid agency they see as a learning organisation?

That situation may slowly improve with greater access to information, the introduction of formal complaints and response mechanisms, growing citizen activism, and increasing assertiveness of governmental and civil society actors in aid-recipient countries. Will it be enough for aid-supported organisations whose sustainability does not ultimately depend on ‘customer satisfaction’?

The aid sector has become an ‘aid-business’: From that perspective, the question for top management is: 'Does being an effective learning organisation contribute to business success', i.e. not only providing real benefits for others but also standing out as a worthwhile organisation, coalition or network, to invest in?

So far, effective learning has not been a requirement for business success. Will that continue to be the case? As aid budgets continue to shrink, and we will eventually be forced to acknowledge that we can’t quickly deliver big demonstrable ‘results’ for the big challenges in many societies and in our world today, I think our learning abilities will start to matter much more.


L’expérience est une chose que vous acquérez juste après en avoir eu besoin.


‘Leadership’ is a big issue in our contemporary world. In politicians we lament the lack of principle and/or the ability to implement policy. Populist demagogues attract worrying numbers of followers. The big corporates generally have a reputation for ruthless treatment of staff and arrogant top executives. The not-for-profit sector pretends to be value-driven but, having become big business, attracts its share of ego-driven, authoritarian-minded managers. Networks, coalitions and people movements are often undermined by interpersonal rivalries. In many places where we need and would expect principled and inspiring leadership, we see people whose outstanding qualities seem to be acquiring power, self-promotion and gaming or faking values and results. They fail to lead or are bad leaders.

Most of us experience the ‘quality’ of leadership in our work place. The diagnosis is not good. Gallup polls around the world show that only some 13% of people feel passionate in and about their jobs. Some 63% are not engaged: they are not happy and inspired and have mentally checked out but are not ready to quit. And some 24% are deeply unhappy with their job and work environment. Money is not necessarily a primary reason. Major demotivating factors are lack of recognition, disempowering overregulation and micro-management, unhelpful and abusive behaviours of supervisors and bosses, and a disregard in practice for the professed values of the organisation. The result is a massive loss of intrinsic motivation, which is the fountain of active responsibility, productivity and creativity. If our accounting systems were less primitive and would pick up this massive wastage of ‘productivity’ and ‘value’, we would have addressed it long ago.

What does this say about the effectiveness and the ‘value-for-money’ or ‘return on investment’ of the huge leadership and management consultancy industries, the many human resource professionals and the smaller but growing coaching profession?

Many of us, including people in formally senior positions, remain confused about what ‘leadership’ – and followership’ is really about. In this post, I want to reiterate some of the key insights about ‘leadership’. In a later post I will explore some of the challenges for the leadership of development organisations in the 21s century.

1.     Leadership is a human relation, not a position.

There is no leadership without followership. Leadership is a relationship between different actors, with usually one leading others who accept to follow. Leadership is in the eye of the beholder. You can call yourself a great leader, but that remains a self-promoting myth if you are not recognised and respected for your leadership by others.

2.    Leadership is about providing people a purpose.

Leadership is first and foremost about providing people a purpose that inspires and motivates, and mobilises them into a commitment towards something that is greater than their narrow self-interest. Decision-making is often an important part of leadership, but less central than ‘purpose’. ‘Why’ is more fundamental than ‘what’.

3.    Leadership can rely on hard power and/or soft power.

Getting others to follow you is a form of power. Followership can be obtained by hard power: the use of rewards and threats. But such transactional relationship has high ongoing costs: the followers are not intrinsically motivated, and sticks and carrots need to be dispensed constantly. Leadership based heavily on hard power ends up breeding mistrust and apathy and in the end defiance.

Soft power relies on persuading but also attracting others to want what you want. The notion of ‘attraction’ evokes that of the ‘charismatic’ leader. Being an effective communicator is a key component of being perceived as charismatic. Yet we also know from human history the risks and disappointments with overly charismatic leaders. ‘Attraction’, and with it commitment and loyalty, can also derive from respect for someone being perceived as a real role model, who shows respect and is a great enabler for others. Soft power alone however is not sufficient in all situations.

4.    Leadership is intrinsically amoral.

The exercise of effective leadership says nothing about the ethical quality of the purpose for which people are mobilised. Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic and many others in human history were great leaders: they successfully mobilised millions of people for years on end even if achieving the ‘purpose’ inevitably involved large scale violence, destruction and domination. In retrospect we call it ‘mis-leading’. Effective leaders are not automatically ethical leaders. Ethical or principled leadership is a deliberate choice.

5.    Leadership is contextual.

Someone can be providing great leadership in one situation but not in another. When a fire breaks out in the cinema hall, the ‘leadership’ that results in an orderly evacuation may come from the popcorn seller and not from the governor who came to see the film. Winston Churchill was a great war-time leader but lost the general election in 1945.

Leadership can be ‘distributed’, it can be exercised by anyone, whatever their position within a formal hierarchy. It is not intrinsically linked to those at the top. The most appreciated great people at the top are those that are ‘leader-breeders’ – they encourage others to develop and use their leadership skills for the collective benefit.

6.    Leadership is imperfect.

No single person is best placed and most insightful to set the course and take decisions all the time and on everything. Mature individuals acknowledge their limitations and deliberately invite the perspectives, ideas and proposals from others. Mature leaders surround themselves with a capable team that has complementary experience and skills and that is not only allowed but encouraged to bring different views. The aim is to improve the idea by argument, to have the best possible decision under the circumstances, not the senior person getting what s/he wants. Excessive alignment kill diversity and with it creativity and innovation.

7.    Leadership and management skills are needed both.

Management mostly focuses on the what and the how, leadership on the why. Management focuses more on output, leadership more on motivation. Achieving desirable outcomes and impacts requires both. People will not sustain their mobilisation around a compelling vision towards a shared purpose if they don’t see progress. While a management that only focuses on outputs or on rule-compliance will destroy all intrinsic motivation and commitment. It must then largely rely on sanctions and rewards which does not bring out the best in people.

8.    Leadership skills can be developed.

Some people have a greater natural predisposition to exercise leadership, but anyone can improve their leadership skills. There is a very profitable leadership industry for the private sector that has increasing uptake in the public sector. The not-for-profit sector seems keener on supplying ‘leadership training’ than on applying it to itself.

A ‘leadership’ course can provide you some frameworks with which to think about what ‘leadership’ means and an assessment of where you (and your bosses) are at now. But a stand-alone course will not have much impact on who you are and how you behave. Some participants may even use the certificate of attendance as 'evidence' that they now have leadership qualities. Real leadership development comes from ongoing intentional practice ('10.000 hours'!) and personal growth, best guided by mentoring or coaching and regularly tested through honest feedback, for years on end. No person will become a ‘rounded’ or well-balanced leader, if s/he is not prepared to work hard on sometimes difficult and uncomfortable personal development.

9.    Leadership styles require contextual intelligence.

Between the aggressive, dominant, authoritarian alpha male (or female), and the ‘servant leader’ who sees her or his role largely as an enabler of the best qualities of others, there is a range of possible leadership styles. Most of us have one or two preferred styles, the ones that come most ‘natural’ to us. Leadership development however requires becoming more comfortable also with other styles, and developing the contextual intelligence to know which style is most appropriate for any given situation. Accomplished individuals may use several different styles within the course of one day, depending on the issue at hand and the people they are dealing with. This requires a strong ‘overall intelligence’ (analytical, emotional, cultural….) and a high level of self-awareness and self-management.

10.   Leadership styles can be constrained by social expectations.

Often the behaviour of someone who has or wants to portray him or herself as a leader is shaped by social norms. People in senior positions in the security forces, top politicians, top business executives etc. are typically expected to be very confident and decisive. People look to them for the answers and the decisions. Extrovert behaviour and being talkative are typically seen as qualities of leadership - until Susan Cain showed us the power of more introverted and listening styles. Being ‘tough’ is more associated with ‘leadership’ than being ‘compassionate’.

The ‘strong’ or ‘big man’ is certainly the predominant image of a ‘leader’ throughout most of Western history and remains so in many other societies. The ‘leader’ taking personal responsibility for (public) ‘failure’, quickly offering his resignation and in the past even committing ritual suicide, seems on the other hand a fairly unique Japanese feature.

Other people look for spiritual ‘leaders’, ‘guides’, gurus, and have different expectations about what is the appropriate behaviour for the role. This too can vary, from an apocalypse-promising 16th century Anabaptist prophet, to a licentious and libidinous guru who accumulates the wealth and sexual pleasures of his disciples, to the compassionate wisdom and modestly of a Dalai Lama. It is said that followers get the leader they deserve – but also the leader they create.

Given that ‘leadership’ is in the eye of the beholder, it is not always easy to display styles that do not correspond to the social expectations in a particular milieu. ‘Leader-breeders’ for example excel in asking the right question instead of always pretending to have the right answer. Yet it may not be advisable to pursue a style that goes very much against the prevailing expectations, before you have been able to build strong relationships and gain some respect.

In contemporary Western societies the tolerance for the ‘big man’ style, also when played by a woman, is growing thin. We want more enabling environments, less arrogance and more accountability. We feel stronger loyalty to those who are ‘fair’ than those who are ‘tough’. We appreciate people that believe in ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. We accept criticism but want it to be constructive so we can learn and grow. We can see through people who are faking it, and reserve our respect for those whom we sense to be ‘authentic’. We need more team coaches and less chiefs.

As Barbara Kellerman has pointed out, responsible followership can be a powerful force to prevent and control the aberrations of ego-driven leaders and in support of good leadership. The overwhelming majority of people are ‘followers’ most of the time, and most of those in managerial and supervisory positions also have others ‘above them’ whom they report to. Why are we not offering training, self- and group development courses about ‘responsible followership’? If the supply of good leadership seems short, perhaps the 63% of disengaged employees can leverage their numbers into a stronger demand?