Article: Taking the LEAD in learning organisations


Taking the LEAD in learning organisations

Can the Wisdom of Whisky help us find the Secret of the Self-taught?
Taking the LEAD in learning organisations

I started drinking young. I won’t say how young but the Roman numeral X hadn’t entered my age when the first drops entered my gullet. Rare is the person who takes to the taste of whisky at first gulp and I was no exception. However, persistence paid. 'In vino veritas' (in wine, truth) and the truth I discovered was that learning anything worthwhile starts with a degree of strain that is not pleasant. Most learners (prompted by ambitious parents) cope with the bitter beginning with the thoughts of the academic or career success the learning will bring. This column isn’t about them. It is about those who, like whisky (and espresso) drinkers, learn to love the initially unpleasant taste for itself and for the 'high' (or energy burst) that follows in its wake. 

Joan Solomon writes: "We need a word to describe a range of people who prefer to teach themselves or to pick up knowledge from non-teaching situations, in one way or another. The state of being such a person is … autodidactism. … Howard Gardner… wrote, that he had found some psychological features common to all these very autonomous people. Not only were they energetic and demanding, but they also retained some of the features of childhood such as going on asking questions and ignoring the conventions, and were themselves fascinated by the exuberant, inquisitive and emotional traits of children… The wish of autodidacts not to be taught in certain ways is coupled with a great wish to learn for and by themselves. [This] may be rewarded in later life by the achievement of original outcomes and fluent personal ways of learning." 1  Gardner’s emphasis on questioning conventional wisdom as well retaining childlike curiosity and disrespect for convention into adulthood gives us two prefixes and a suffix to 'autodidact', creating LEAD as an acronym for Lifelong Explorer & Autodidactic Doubter.

The concept of learning uncontaminated by extrinsic rewards is not new to management thinkers. In his famous 1990 article, Peter Senge wrote: "Human beings are designed for learning... Ironically, by focusing on performing for someone else’s approval, corporations create the very conditions that predestine them to mediocre performance. Over the long run, superior performance depends on superior learning." 2 Individuals who grow to the top of organizations that lead in principles, products or processes need to be autodidacts. Corporates that close their eyes to such talent internally end up losing it and, if they are still intent running a non-imitatory race, have no choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of the best HirGu fate sends their way. 3

Learning of the kind we have been describing characterizes even those who survive and flourish at middle levels. "Eraut et al.’s research on the mid-career learning of … managers and professionals … found that most of the learning that occurred was informal, neither clearly specified nor planned in advance."  4 While self-procured and absorbed knowledge has always been essential for climbing the career ladder, fast-changing technology and organizational agility demand it for even entry-level roles as well as when people need to be redeployed in the face of AI and other strategic imperatives. As Tsedal Neeley puts it: "The real concern that people should have is about whether they will be replaced by those who have a digital mindset, which is the ability to see new possibilities and chart a path for the future using data, algorithms, AI, and machine learning." 5Only self-learners will distinguish themselves from their peers. Only the autodidactiest will prosper!   

The Autodidactic Trinity

Undifferentiated as autodidactism may appear, a LEAD must have each of the following proficiencies. Those with only the first become swots, possessors of just the second are mocked as mad scientists and simply having the third makes people imitators at worst and craftsmen at best. LEAD pioneers excel in all.

Linear Learning:. 

The early teen was clearly out of his depth. 'Paradise Lost' remained beyond his full comprehension despite the dictionaries of biblical references and of classical literature and antiquities that lay by his elbow. Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Nietzsche packed delightful prose but what did a dancing Zarathustra really signify? No matter the very tiny trickle that percolated to his brain. No matter the time stolen from class work for the next day of school. No matter the jeers of friends who rarely saw him on the playground. He ignored the marshmallow at hand and kept picking up one abstruse book after another. 

Every reader of this column is familiar with Mischel’s marshmallows. 6 Our LEADs (and whisky drinkers) are somewhat different in having to await non-commensurate returns for their immediate denial which frequently takes the form of the opportunity cost of the time spent on learning. While the next section deals with what these returns can be, it is likely that the neural mechanism is not different in the two cases. "Comparative and functional human studies have implicated a network of brain areas involved in intertemporal choice, including the medial portion of the orbitofrontal cortex… [which] contributes to preference for delayed rewards, either by computing the value of future outcomes (i.e., valuation), or by enabling people to imagine and represent future rewards and their consequences (e.g., prospection)."  7 The principles appropriate for this LEAD proficiency were enunciated by John Amos Comenius four hundred years ago: 8

1. Proceed by (small) stages.

2. Examine everything yourself without submitting to authority.

3. Act on your own impulsion.

Interdisciplinary Connects: 

The struggle went on for months. It was clear that there was something fundamental missing or wrong with the way corporates were being governed but there didn’t seem to be any obvious answer emanating from the vast discipline of business management. Then, faintly at first and then with growing insistence, there was resonance between studies in the history and efficacy of political governance and the seeming dead-end in corporate organization. The intersect provided a cogent argument for corporate democracy as the only feasible solution to break the logjam. 9  It later emerged that the idea had found other parents too and had been put into practice in a few forward-thinking organizations. But they were not the source of the idea in this case and, in fact, provided an additional source of 'Alatrinsic' reward (see next section). 

What we have just reviewed is an instance of the second LEAD proficiency. Its prerequisite is multiple streams of knowledge. in a variety of disciplines. While each may have been delivered through Linear Learning, it is their Bisociation that that is the progenitor of the creative breakthrough. 10

The defining characteristic of those who make the most fruitful (if sometimes disturbing) connects is the desire to be different. Sternberg famously called this the Investment Theory of Creativity. "It is based on the notion that creative people decide to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas – that is, they generate ideas that tend to 'defy the crowd' (buy low), and then, when they have persuaded many people, they sell high, meaning they move on to the next unpopular idea." 11LEAD doubters are ideally placed to make this 'investment'.

Practical Pioneering: 

Much as today’s HR Arjuns may believe otherwise, the mahayuddha for IT talent is not a recent phenomenon. It was a phenomenon witnessed even in the time my company (Telco – now Tata Motors) had more programmers than any of India’s IT majors of the day. After much hand-wringing and hair-tearing, we realized the practical application of creative thought that had been floating in our heads without finding a use. Perhaps because of my own misfitting education, I have always been a strong votary of identifying talent with the desire to learn instead of worrying too much about the square-peg-in-a-round-hole problem. 12  The germinated idea was to develop programmers from people with the unlikeliest of qualifications – the further away from the computer science (then de rigueur) or other engineering degree (still the standard requirement) the less likelihood of poaching. Our retention soared as long as we treated these resources (almost) on par with engineers and provided them careers. 

As this example shows, the thought trail in practical pioneering need not be breathtakingly creative or even analytically brilliant. In fact, "… much of what makes people successful in real world performance is not whatever it is that intelligence tests measure." 13  The anticipatory thrill here comes from traversing the track to reach uncharted use-fields. While success in implementation brings its unique satisfaction and (at least) reputational rewards, simply thinking of the possible use and benefits provides its own dopamine dose. Which brings us to a closer examination of the rewards the brain provides to a LEAD.

Alatrinsic Motivation  

We are all familiar with the Intrinsic and Extrinsic poles of the motivation spectrum. "The distinction between the two types of motives is based on the origin of the motive. Intrinsic motives are subjective valuations of a behavior – meaning that the behavior in itself is rewarding. The motivation is thus the inherent value of a specific behavior. In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to external incentives that are separable from the behavior itself. Here, motivation is thus not inherent, but is induced by the prospect of an external outcome."  14 But what happens when an external outcome, approbation or admiration, for instance, is not simply non-material but imagined – and remains so? Drivers of actions that neither depend on pleasure yielded by the activity itself (though, like the whisky drinking, a genuine taste for the activity may develop later) nor on an external incentive (whether immediate or deferred), deserve a separate nomenclature. Since this intermediate category of motivation arises from Anticipated Learning Accomplishments, relative to mentally created comparison groups (that need never be aware of their use as reference points), it is suggested that it be dubbed Alatrinsic Motivation. The rest of this section examines three prime comparison groups for such motivation. 

Peer Comparison:

Alatrinsic motivation usually starts with a LEAD exceeding the learning of peers in non-prescribed parts of curriculum, whether at school or on-the-job. Real as the comparison may be, it would be the naivest LEAD who would make the imagined superiority public. 

Mentor Comparison:

The next imagined threshold is more challenging and yet more risky to reveal. The comparison-set to be equalled or surpassed in learning now consists of the teachers and mentors of the LEAD. Since the quality of institutions and guides (hopefully) gets better as the LEAD progresses, exceeding this imagined bar on a few occasions is the maximum Alatrinsic reward of which most LEADs can dream.

Seer Comparison:

The most envied and least frequently achieved parity or proximity is to world-class thinkers (past or present) in the discipline. "[W]e must note two different senses of ‘creative’… One sense is psychological (I call it P-creative, for short), the other historical (H-creative)… The psychological sense concerns ideas… that are surprising, or perhaps even fundamentally novel, with respect to the individual mind which had the idea… The historical sense applies to ideas that are novel with respect to the whole of human history." 15  A LEAD who develops H-creative ideas convincingly is likely to be invited to Stockholm. The best the rest of us can aspire to is finding a parallel in the works of such savants to conclusions we have reached totally independently.   

Searching for LEADs

LEAD availability is limited. Fortunately, not all jobs demand dyed-in-the-wool LEADs. Jobs in business strategy, long-range planning in any function and product or process research are most likely to benefit from LEAD-listers. At some junctures in companies’ evolutions, they may provide ideal CEO material as well. 

The day is not yet here when individual learning choices can be differentiated through fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans of the cortex and striatum and used for selection. 16 There is, however, every reason to hope personality tests will give good leads to narrow our LEAD search. Growing evidence links the motivation to learn with the Openness and Conscientiousness dimensions of the five-factor model "(1) Intrinsic motivation, a deep approach to learning and learning goals are associated with general knowledge and good test results, all linked together by the openness trait; (2) Extrinsic (in combination with intrinsic) motivation, an achieving (in combination with deep) approach to learning and performance goals (in combination with learning goals) are associated with high grades in general linked together by the conscientiousness trait."  17  It would be pointless to expect studies to provide big five correlations with Alatrinsic Motivation, which has just been enunciated, but it would be surprising if this intermediate type strayed too far from the Openness and Conscientiousness dimensions. 

Are we helpless till personality test studies catch up? Certainly not. Our trusty (and dusty) interview infantry can very adequately hold the fort till the personality test cavalry arrives. The rough and ready personality projector that I have used for decades in interviews is embedded in 3H open-ended questions:

  • Hobbies
  • Hours spent (non-work)
  • Heroes

It is apparent the same questions can be used to establish a variety of proclivities – including the LEAD set described above. It is impossible, for even the smartest of candidates, to figure out expected directions and tailor answers accordingly. More confirmatory information can be derived from situations using varying degrees of props and guile. One of the simplest can be concocted in any waiting room situation with the help of a collection of magazines and a board requesting waiting candidates not to use electronic devices. The choice of magazine and the article(s) perused can give the selectors’ assistant, sitting in the waiting room, enough evidence if the 3H conclusions are in doubt. 

Connecting LEADs 

Regular readers of my columns must have already spotted the strong connect between what’s been written here and 'The Up-Hill Slope' – a column I wrote recently on the wisdom of attracting and choosing individuals who have displayed a steep leaning trajectory. 18 At the time of selection, assuming these super-learners are roughly on par with their candidate cohort, they must, by definition, have had humble or disadvantaged beginnings. 'The Up-Hill Slope', therefore, concluded by giving the examples of Toussaint Louverture, Frederick Douglass and Bhimrao Ambedkar, three remarkable autodidacts who started from terrifyingly disadvantaged childhoods – though none made a mark in business enterprises (as you might have guessed). 19 For those who must have instances with greater business connect, there is an earlier column that details the penchant for learning (and philanthropy) demonstrated by Andrew Carnegie. 20

Inspiration apart, what may be of greater practical use should be steps we can take, both as individuals and as HR practitioners, to enhance our LEAD. The good news: it’s 'cool'. The challenge: 'cool' has more than one meaning. "The participatory effort required to complete and digest information, instructions and ideas is at the heart of the 'cool' and 'hot' medium terminology popularised by Marshall McLuhan…" 21  While the referenced column provides leads on becoming a 'cool' learner, for the benefit of prospective hosts, I declare I like my whisky cool (but not – god forbid – iced!). 


1 Joan Solomon, Theories of learning and the range of autodidactism, from Joan Solomon (Ed), The Passion to Learn: An Inquiry into Autodidactism, Routledge, 2014.

 2 Peter M Senge, The Leader's New Work: Building Learning Organizations, Sloan Management Review, Fall 1990.

 3 Visty Banaji, Guns for (Corporate) Hire, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 19-25, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.

  4 Michael Eraut, Learning Trajectories, Innovation and Identity for Professional Development, (Ed Anne Mc Kee and Michael Eraut ), Springer, 2013.

5  Kristen Senz, Is AI Coming for Your Job?, HBS Working Knowledge, 26 April 2023.

 6 Sabine Doebel, Laura Michaelson and Yuko Munakata, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait: Delaying Gratification Likely Does Matter for Later Achievement (A Commentary on Watts, Duncan, & Quan, 2018), Psychological Science, 31:1, 97-99, 2019.

  7 Manuela Sellitto, Elisa Ciaramelli and Giuseppe di Pellegrino, The neurobiology of intertemporal choice: insight from imaging and lesion studies, Rev Neurosci., 22(5):565-74, 2011.

  8 Joan Solomon, Theories of learning and the range of autodidactism, from Joan Solomon (Ed), The Passion to Learn: An Inquiry into Autodidactism, Routledge, 2014.

 9 Visty Banaji, A Company of People, By People and For People, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 534-541, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.

  10 Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, a Study of the Conscious and Unconscious in Science and Art, Dell, 1964.

  11Robert Sternberg, Wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity Synthesized, Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

  12 Visty Banaji, People  Are Made of Steel – Stretch Them, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 33-37, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.

  13 Robert Sternberg, Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

  14 T Strombach, S Strang, S Q Park and P Kenning, Common and distinctive approaches to motivation in different disciplines, from Motivation: Theory, Neurobiology and Applications, Bettina Studer and Stefan Knecht (Editors), Academic Press Inc., 2016.

  15 Margaret Boden, The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms, Routledge, 2003.

  16 Nathaniel Daw and Kenji Doya The computational neurobiology of learning and reward, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 16:199-204, 2006.

  17 Mikael Jensen, Personality Traits, Learning and Academic Achievements, Journal of Education and Learning, Vol. 4, No. 4; 2015.

  18 Visty Banaji, The Up-Hill Slope, People Matters, xxx 2023, (xxx).

  19 Visty Banaji, Learn Leadeership Lessons from Leaders, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 417-424, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.

  20 Visty Banaji, The hags of Indian business, People Matters, 10 January 2023, (

  21 Visty Banaji, Cool Learning, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 199-206, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.

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