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Essay on Leaderly Learning

Viall introduces the argument that managerial leadership is not learned; managerial leadership is learning, meaning that qualities and skills of an executive position cannot be taught in class but rather be learned on the job. This ideology introduces the term leaderly learning meaning the learning process a manager should be engaged in as an ongoing process in the job. This is because institutional learning does not equip the leaders with the practical skills necessary to deal with emerging turbulent environments in the actual work environment. In his argument on leadership and learning, Viall compares his tenure as a dean and three other deans after him. Despite their qualifications, skills, and knowledge that qualified them for the job, no one necessarily prepared them for the continued stream of interruptions and aberrations that demanded their attention. Institutional learning does not necessarily prepare one for such environments and hence introduces the concept of getting things done. As established by Viall, this concept preoccupies the manager away from learning. Institutional learning equips the manager with technical and professional knowledge to perform normal tasks which may not be applicable while on the job faced with unpredictable situations. Thus, Vaill establishes various intangibles necessary to complement the manager’s technical and managerial leadership.

One of the intangibles includes the learning premise. This is where the manager applies the learning theory to themselves and become comfortable with it. This means that instead of viewing themselves as incompetent for learning, managers become comfortable in the learning theory and are willing to learn from different people within the organization. Instead of focusing on getting done, the learning premise allows the executive to be more involved in their relationship with others. It gives the individual the skills and knowledge that could not be taught in class. It eliminates the assumption that formal education will be retained in the brain, hoping it will be enough to be helpful when needed.

Managers should engage in all aspects of leaderly learning. This entails understanding all the elements of involved concepts, including the advantages and disadvantages of the process, the strengths and weaknesses of leaderly learning, and the various methods. For example, instead of managers devoting their time and resources to the institutional learning process, they can have hands-on experience. This means exposure to the formal setting of their future career (Amy 2005). For example, Vaill watching how the three deans worked, what techniques were effective in what situation, combined with his experience as a dean, would have made him an effective dean if he would resume the position. However, as each dean faced a unique problem that probably did not have precedent in dealing with it, the same would have happened when he resumed, but it did not compare to the assumption made by the institutional learning process. Therefore, having exposure instead of cramming subject matter complements the technical skills and knowledge one has.

Managers employing the learning premise complement their understanding of human behavior. Unlike institutional learning, where the manager interacts with various forms of formal education through leaderly learning, they interact with people who influence their role as leaders (Vaill, 1996). Aside from learning about others, it reflects the leader’s own assumption about humans. Some of the premises can be hostile against particular people or discriminatory. Leaderly learning enables the learner to identify own and other people’s assumptions, an essential aspect of human behavior. This contrasts institutional understanding, which channels the learner to maintain and express a specific characteristic necessary to be effective as a leader; for example, an authoritarian leadership that demands respect produces results. In leaderly learning, understanding human behavior and their relationships with each other and the managers are essential in creating an environment that brings out the full potential of the leaders and thus more efficient and quality results.

Exposure to a natural workplace environment allows learners to see their future employers, colleagues, and people they will serve in their natural setting. For example, pre-exposure to higher learning institutions gives the learner an idea of university behaviors. Thus, they can access their capabilities in dealing with that particular crowd to inform their decision during applications (Amy, 2005). Leaderly learning makes the leader the student, and thus, as part of learning, research is necessary, which is a useful tool in learning human behavior. Leaderly learning is a continuous process with each day and opportunity as a leader facilitating the acquisition of new knowledge.

According to Vaill, leaderly learning can take three forms. Self-directed leaderly learning entails being initiative where learning establishes what is needed and why and what approach concerning time and other factors is most likely to work. In this case, the learner is the manager and owner of the initiative process as it is their personal belief and conviction (Vaill, 1996). Additionally, this type of learning takes others through the learning process of what needs to be done. It allows the leaders to experience what they want and facilitate the process that leads to what needs to be done after discovering it. Secondly, the leader can choose creative leaderly learning. This entails selecting the best practice that may not have precedent to solve particular problems. It creates process frontiers which is the area of new activity and cannot be managed by already existing traditions or policies. Lastly, the leaders can choose to engage in expressive leaderly learning, which is applying or practicing what had been learned in a passive conceptual mode. It entails the individual’s responsibility to impart purpose and direction to the system, the leader’s knowledge of the nature of the systems and environment, and lastly, the reactivity of other human beings in the systems. This creates the leaderly learning technical, purposeful, and relational knowledge choices.

The three must work in sync to produce a competent leader; however, relational knowledge is most important. This is because it facilitates establishing relationships between knowledge, experience, and people. For example, the leader may not know all the components of the technical parts of a particular function, but another person within the organization may know. Therefore, relation knowledge can engage the knowledgeable individual in finding the appropriate solutions (Toms and Kovacs, 2010). In every organization, the leader must know the purpose of each function and the individual under them for effective leadership. The best way to do this is to promote relationships with others that will identify the written roles and the unwritten activities and relationships that run the organization. Relational knowledge affects human behavior as with the new ways of leadership; the leader must find ways to implement new leadership skills and techniques in new environments and new people presenting different challenges. This further facilitates understanding human behaviors when faced with unprecedented challenges; for example, when faced with danger, the body naturally flees or fights. The option the body chooses cannot be taught in institutional learning, and the various challenges are unique to particular situations requiring technical, purposeful, and relational knowledge to address them. Therefore, though technical that expresses what one has learned, purposeful; that initiates what has been learned relational learning creates links this information to the present problem and other people.

Relational knowledge helps the leaders keep sight of what is important, pick the best initiative necessary for the whole organization, and best ways to disseminate information. All these are necessary to attain the same goal. Abraham Lincoln was faced with the worst times in America; he had to deal with the civil war. It was a time in American history when the issue of slavery created a big divide and two groups. The union supported the emancipation of the enslaved people and consisted mainly of the northern states. The southern states, which were the confederacy, supported slavery and had left the union. Lincoln displayed his technical skills by evaluating the effects on America when the troops lost to the confederates and hence, had to hold the country together (Toms and Kovacs, 2010). He showed purposefulness in ending slavery instead of giving in to the wishes of most southern states. He would have forsaken the South and continued the experiment of slavery abolition with the Northern States, but through his relational knowledge, he evaluated the cost of this option to future America and the works of previous presidents in holding America as a United country and the precedent he would set for future presidents. In relational knowledge, he had to apply tactics that would bring the South and the north into an agreement that would end the war and stop further killings and riots.

Conclusively, managerial leadership is not learned; managerial leadership is learning emphasizes the need to be open-minded as leaders to accommodate new skills and knowledge that may affect the leadership quality, individual behaviors, and other people’s behaviors. Aside from the technical and professional expertise required to perform daily tasks, Viall argues in favor of continual learning to complement the knowledge. This applies to human behavior as it leads to further understanding of the environment and the people surrounding the leader. Relational knowledge is more flexible and provides the basics for human reasoning by evaluating how each identified concept relates to the other and influences human behavior. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of America, showed technical, purposeful, and relational knowledge in leading the country at an essential time of abolishing slavery and ending the civil war. Historians identify his purposefulness in ending slavery while uniting the nation as the reason for his assassination.


Amey, M. J. (2005). Leadership is learning: Conceptualizing the process. Community college journal of research and practice29(9-10), 689-704.

Toms, W. M., & Kovacs, E. (2010). Leadership Behavior and Learning Styles: Considerations in Leadership Development. BOOK REVIEW, 53.

Vaill, P. B. (1996). Learning As a Way Of Being: Strategies For Survival In a World of Permanent White Water. Chapter 4: Leaderly Learning.


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