Does your leadership development program leverage all five adult learning theories? Here’s why it should

What are the five models of adult learning theory, and how can L&D leaders develop an effective leadership development program that incorporates elements grounded in all five theories?

Most organizations embrace the tenet that developing strong leaders is paramount to both short- and long-term organizational success. Significant resources are plowed into leadership development programs. Yet there is frustration that despite investment, dedication and commitment to leadership development, the results can be disappointing. Organizations just don’t feel they are moving the needle enough on developing capable leaders. They remain concerned about their pipelines of leaders prepared to take on the challenges their organizations are facing.

Developing individuals into strong leaders is not a simple or quick process. It requires years of investment in the leader’s development and effort on the part of leaders and learning and development professionals. It also demands that organizations implement robust and comprehensive leadership development programs which leverage all five models of adult learning theory. It is on this last dimension where many leadership development programs fail. Programs may incorporate only a subset of the models or rely too heavily on a single theory. Even if an organization includes components of all five models in its leadership development program, it may fail to incorporate assessment of the learning from all five.

What are the five models of adult learning theory and how can L&D leaders develop an effective leadership development program that incorporates elements grounded in all five theories? In their book “Learning in Adulthood,” Merriam et. al describe five orientations toward learning. Each of these is focused on a different aspect of developing the capacity to understand and then apply leadership concepts. The five adult learning models are cognitivist, behaviorist, humanist, social cognitive and constructivist. The key is that the most effective leadership development curricula offers a blend of all five learning orientations.

The cognitivist orientation focuses on what the learner knows — their internal cognitive structure. In this model of learning, knowledge is built upon previous experiences and mental models. To properly support this model, the designer of a leadership development program must design a curriculum that presents theoretical leadership content in a logical, appropriately staged format. The goal is for the learner to master the key theoretical concepts in leadership development. The model helps leaders to learn by exposing them to an extensive body of knowledge of theoretical models that can inform their behavior. This sets a solid foundation for the other learning orientations. Understanding theoretical models of effective leadership such as problem-solving models, models of ethical decision-making and models of effective team dynamics, for example, can enable leaders to apply these models in novel situations. The cognitivist orientation can be the foundational element in a leadership development program. It is easily implemented by exposing the learner to a first-rate, off-the-shelf library of theoretical leadership development content. There are many providers of off-the-shelf on-line learning content for leadership development, but the selection of a provider should be based on a few criteria. First and foremost, the content must be rigorous and grounded in proven leadership theories. The content should be authored by subject matter experts who are recognized experts on the topic. Second, online courses should make heavy use of video which can allow for the depiction of scenarios involving actual human beings. Scenario-based training in the context of a video-based course is key because it grounds the theory in practice, but is also proven to aid learner recall. The visual cortex, we know from scientific research, is involved in a very important mechanism of memory. It includes a population of neurons that are selectively involved in processing different categories of images. A particular group of neurons is selectively activated in response to faces while another group activates in response to scenes. So, there is selectivity and the selective function makes individuals more efficient at processing what they see. Learning in this selective way helps to create a distinct memory in the brain that can then be more easily retrieved later on. Finally, the content should include both reflection exercises and assessments (or knowledge checks) which run throughout the course as well as at the conclusion of the course, in order to make sure that the learner is tracking with the content being covered. Ideally the content is delivered using a modern cloud-based platform which enables easy access and seamless navigation.

While the cognitivist approach is a foundational piece for any effective leadership development program, it is limited in its ability to create true behavioral change. Some refer to this as the “knowing-doing gap.” This is why the learning experiences enabled by the other four adult learning orientations are so critical. The behaviorist orientation is concerned with an individual’s behavior change. Here, the designer of a leadership development program should be concerned with creating a program that ensures that desired leadership behaviors are shaped and reinforced, and that a leader displays increasing levels of mastery. Instructional strategies that can be used for this approach include virtual reality simulations, role plays and deliberate practice with a leadership coach. Ideally, there are trained observers who can assess behavior improvement when a leader is practicing giving an inspirational speech, problem-solving in the team setting, negotiating a deal or dealing with team conflict, for example. The objective of the behaviorist approach is for the leader to engage in regular, deliberate practice where they can receive real-time coaching and feedback on behavioral performance. There are many solutions on the market that designers of a leadership development program can leverage in order to include the behaviorist component into the leadership development program. Vendors include providers of face-to-face coaching, online platform-based coaching, virtual reality simulations, systems dynamics simulations, facilitated group role-playing, etc.

The humanistic adult learning orientation advocates that an individual find their own purpose and become self-actualized through the development of a highly personalized and self-directed learning path. Key to this orientation is the ability for the learner to understand and recognize their individual goals, motivations, strengths and values. Leaders need to deeply understand themselves in order to be effective. Research shows that being self-aware, self-actualized and autonomous makes for a stronger, more capable leader. Instructional strategies to incorporate the humanistic orientation include personality assessments (i.e., DISC or Myers-Briggs) 360-degree assessments, strengths assessments, individual and group reflection exercises and personal development plans. There are many vendors who provide assessments. Attention should be given to incorporating multiple assessments so that a robust, holistic assessment of a leader can be made. Leaders should also be required to engage in thoughtful self-assessment and self-reflection.

The social cognitive orientation to leadership learning asserts that learning occurs when interacting with others in a social context. For leaders, the purpose of learning in social cognitivism is to master new roles and behaviors facilitated by more experienced leaders who can serve as formal and informal mentors. The model seeks to ensure that leaders have role models and a network to help support them in learning and growth. Ideally, learners in leadership development are connected with individuals who are skilled at modeling desired leadership behaviors. The designer of a leadership development program must therefore include opportunities for mentorship into the leadership development program. This can include shadowing and structured development relationships between mentors and leader mentees. The program designer should create a database of all available mentors and mentees in need of mentoring, and, using descriptive tags and fields, optimize the assignment of mentees to appropriate mentors. There are platforms on the market which are designed to support mentorship programs and which automate the process of building a mentorship program.

Finally, the constructivist orientation is concerned with having a leader learner construct personal meaning from their experience, and this is achieved by providing learners with experience and then facilitating meaning making for learners. The constructivist orientation is unlocked through action learning experiences. These experiences are typically project-based and are sometimes called leader “stretch assignments.” The designer of a leadership development program should assign a stretch assignment to each leader learner based on the individual needs of the learner. Here, again, a database of stretch assignments or project-based opportunities can be created with tags and fields for optimized assignment of leaders to opportunities. Alternatively, mentors can be tasked with identifying and overseeing stretch assignments for their mentees. Mentors are often in an ideal position to identify, assign and oversee stretch assignments and project-based learning opportunities.

Table 1 provides a synopsis of the five adult learning orientations with additional information for supporting, applying and assessing each. It is critical for the designer of a leadership development program to leverage all five orientations and to do so in a blended manner. A siloed approach is much less effective. The best place for a leadership development program designer to start is to define the leadership competencies to be mastered, develop a curriculum map which incorporates these competencies, thoughtfully weave in all five adult learning orientations into the learning experience, and determine how to assess the effectiveness of each component and the overall program. An effective leadership development program requires 18-24 months where leader development is supported through consistent development and evaluation in multiple modalities. Implementing a leadership development program that incorporates all five adult learning orientations involves more commitment, resources, time and effort, but an organization is only as capable as its leaders. Optimizing the development of its leaders is arguably the most important step an organization can take to maintain and grow competitive advantage. There is no better investment it can make.

Heide Abelli
Heide has extensive experience in the publishing, media and educational technology/training sectors. For decades she has developed award-winning e-learning solutions in the leadership and business market and has held senior roles in product development, innovation and product management for leading content organizations. Heide is passionate about leveraging technology to improve the practice of management. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and is on the faculty of the Management and Organization Department of Boston College’s School of Business.

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