Vertical Learning Not Much Without Action Behind It

Published in UT San Diego, May 5, 2014

Leadership and learning.

There have been 903 books or articles written on this subject in the last six months (or so it seems). It is the favorite topic of the entire consulting industry. Yet no one has really cracked the code — because if they did, they would probably have offices in the celestial firmament. (Talk about a cloud-based solution.)

And to be fair, I am definitely not of the touchy-feely, ohmm, gobbledygook, buzzword temperament. But I recently attended a conference on conscious capitalism held in San Diego, and I think the concept is worth some consideration.

“Conscious capitalism exists to elevate humanity.” (No reason not to aim high). Its goal is to reflect and leverage the interdependent nature of life and all of the stakeholders in a business.” This quote is from John Mackey, the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, so these are not thoughts from a wannabe. This is the real deal. And the movement of conscious capitalism has numerous CEOs from the Fortune 500, so it needs to be seriously considered.

A key element is to promote vertical learning. (For this height-challenged writer, you can imagine this was not going to be easy.) Vertical learning is the transformation of how a leader thinks, feels and makes sense of the world. It develops your mental complexity and emotional intelligence. Vertical learning is about mindset transformation. Vertical learning focuses on the “how” we learn, not the “what” we learn.

Whoa. This is heady stuff indeed. But again, I needed to hit the reset button on my skepticism. After all, this stuff is studied at Harvard and Stanford. (I am not sure if Page and Brin took this course before they started Google). On the other hand, horizontal learning (my desired position for sure) enables us to gain knowledge and build functional skills, whereas vertical learning heightens our awareness and makes us both wiser and more caring.

OK, I am definitely down with that. Vertical learning will improve decision-making, inspire vision, tolerate ambiguity (this is one of my personal favorites), reframe challenges and lead transformational change. No one can oppose that stuff. All good. Sign me up.

And there was no shortage of folks there to do just that. Of the 400 attendees, about 200 were consultants. I was told the average time needed to really improve an organization is at least six months and probably more than a year. Conscious or not, this movement definitely creates jobs.

They talk about a leader as one who witnesses “the moment-to-moment flux of experience.” I am fine with that, but the dark sentence is this — while the speakers were excellent and the attendees were true believers, it seemed to me that for the entrepreneurial culture here in San Diego, most of us already practice what they preach.

We empower our employees, we create opportunities for personal growth, we accommodate family time, we inspire purpose, so that our teams do not come to work just for a paycheck, we create a structure that rewards achievement (stock options and bonuses work really well in the startup game), we offer trust and create loyalty, and we try to avoid neurotic behavior (trying to win your mother’s love again and again). In other words, I came away from the day a true believer in the power of the principles, but primarily a cheerleader for the entrepreneurial soup we are stirring in this community.

I think being conscious about capitalism is a good thing. Creating revenue and jobs are good things. But I don’t think it happens by just doing the downward dog pose. You need to be conscious and fully engaged, both in the venture and in your people. And while in many ways, this is obvious; it does not hurt to be reminded about purpose and vertical learning, and developing a more complex mindset.

At the same time, let’s finish the code base for the presentation tomorrow, and be sure to complete the genomic sequencing for the customer. It’s not so bad to just get back to work.

Rule No. 352

If leadership and learning were easy, everyone would do it.

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