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Human Resources
Sep 5, 2017

From Ford To Bush: A Look At The Learning Agility Of Modern Leaders

Sponsored Content provided by Dave Hoff - Chief Operating Officer and Executive VP of Leadership Development, EASI Consult

Did Gerald Ford’s ability to work well with others  – something we at EASI·Consult® call Collaborating – help the nation heal after Nixon left office? 

George W. Bush followed the same educational path as his father, George H.W., attending Andover and Yale. They were both perceived as being unyielding in their stances once they had taken them. We would describe that as a lack of one of the nine dimensions of Learning Agility - Flexibility. Were there similarities due to personality? Education? Or did this have something to do with learning agility? These probably aren’t questions you consider often – if ever – but some of my fellow students actually spent a lot of time asking these and many similar questions over the summer as we examined six of our more recent presidents.

For the third consecutive summer, I had the privilege of being a participant in a presidential forum offered by UNC-Wilmington’s Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI). In this year's student-led seminar, we focused on Gerald Ford through George W. Bush.

Again this year, I was invited to give a presentation on Learning Agility at the opening session. The idea was that, armed with an understanding of Learning Agility, my classmates and I could then use it as a lens through which to view each of the presidents we discussed.

Learning Agility is considered to be closely linked to leadership potential. Obviously, none of the men who became our presidents had any prior experience in that position before getting elected - or in the case of Ford, acceded to that role.  

For the last two years, my firm, EASI•Consult®, has worked with Warner Burke, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University. Burke has created and validated a test that measures Learning Agility, appropriately called the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (Burke LAI).

As mentioned earlier in this article, there are nine dimensions to the Burke LAI:

1. Flexibility - Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.

2. Speed - Acting on ideas quickly to discard those that aren’t working and accelerate more promising possibilities.

3. Experimenting - Trying out new behaviors (i.e. approaches, ideas) to determine what is effective.

4. Performance Risk Taking - Seeking new activities (i.e., tasks, assignments, roles) that provide opportunities to be challenged.

5. Interpersonal Risk Taking - Confronting differences with others in a way that can generate unique opportunities for learning.

6. Collaborating - Finding ways to work with others that lead to unique learning opportunities.

7. Information Gathering - Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.

8. Feedback Seeking - Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance.

9. Reflecting - Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective.

These dimensions differentiate people who are more learning agile from those who are less so. The more learning agile someone is, the more options they will be able to draw upon to solve a problem. 

Below is a summary of the OLLI Forum’s unscientific impressions of six presidents using the Burke LAI.

President Strength Weakness
Ford Collaborating Speed
Carter Performance Risk Taking Collaborating
Reagan None Information Gathering
H.W. Bush Collaborating None
Clinton Collaborating & Flexibility Reflecting
Bush None Speed
 
Of the six presidents we studied, we rated Clinton the most learning agile overall, with Ford, Carter, Reagan and H.W. Bush ranked as demonstrating a medium amount of overall learning agility. George W. Bush was seen as the least learning agile of the six.

While Reagan demonstrated some Flexibility, Collaborating and Performance Risk Taking, nothing stood out as a clear strength. The class also felt he did not show much evidence of Information Gathering. 

The class did not see any learning agility strengths exhibited by George W. Bush. In his book, Decision Points, George W. wrote that he viewed himself as more of a student of people than ideas or information. This aligns with what we found to be his strongest of the nine learning agility dimensions, Collaborating. Like Ford, George W. Bush’s weakness was lacking Speed, or the ability to absorb a lot of information and get to its essence.

Carter, the “Man from Plains,” was seen as a Washington outsider. While he seemed to be a Performance Risk Taker, some of those risks led to high gas prices and long gas lines. Interest rates also went through the roof during his administration. Some might say his learning agility weakness in the area of Collaborating caused him to be ineffective.

Once again, it was fun to  discover in more detail some of our nation’s leaders’ strengths and weaknesses and, in some cases, the consequences we experienced as a result of their choices. It has also been exciting to use the Burke LAI as a tool for studying them. 

While this is the end to the presidential series, there is much more to come on Learning Agility. Look for a book on Learning Agility, co-written by Burke and I, this fall. 

EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email [email protected] or call (800) 922-EASI.

        
 

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