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Making Learning Stick: Transformational Leadership Development for the Long Haul, Part II

In Part I of this two part series on Transformational Leadership Development, I shared information about the problems associated with improving the retention and application of leadership development content. The ultimate goal of such training is to change the behavior of participants for their good and their organizations. Given the huge financial investment that companies make each year in this effort and their ROI expectations, it is imperative that this problem be corrected. And in my mind, the primary reason for this failure is the methodologies used to deliver training content.

In response to this need, I now share with you in outline form, the following model/process that can increase the potential for real transformational learning experiences, especially for leaders. This model represents what I learned from my years of experience using facilitative, adult learning methods. These methods, again and again, produced the type of transformation I’ve described among the students and other participants who it was my privilege to serve in this way. My thanks to Phil Islet, MSOL graduate, who created the visual representation of this model below.

To begin, let me say that the methodology used during leadership training and development is critical–as important as the content presented. Facilitative methods, including continuous interaction by the trainer with participants, asking questions (in the manner that I described in my “Asking Questions” blog) using short case studies with small group discussions and debriefing their conclusions, encouraging participants to interact with each other and to ask questions about the discussion, etc., are necessary to create the transformation learning environment. Prolonged lectures or the rote use of PowerPoints can kill the transformational process.

Moreover, the application of the content, by participants in their real-life contexts must be a constant focus of the training experience. This is the “Praxis” approach–theory informing experience and experience informing theory. It’s learning through knowledge and action.

In addition, it is important to provide opportunities for serious reflection by participants throughout the process. Reflection makes them “think about what they are thinking about” (not double talk). This introspective, reflective practice is part and parcel of transformation learning.

With these facilitative methods in mind, I’ll now describe the above visual representation of the Transformation Learning Process: (please keep in mind this is a brief introduction and, when practiced, includes a variety of nuances, adjustments, etc. to the process depending on the dynamics of the group)

  1. During the presentation of new information, concepts, behaviors, etc., have participants identify their current “assumptions,” beliefs, perceptions, etc., of those concepts.

  2. Once identified, ask what attitudes and behaviors those assumptions support. For example, if Servant Leadership is the topic, ask them what assumptions they have about “leadership” prior to introducing Servant Leadership.

  3. After some initial discussion of Servant Leadership, begin to ask them what assumptions about leadership are necessary to support servant leader attitudes and behaviors.

  4. If some of those assumptions are different or at odds with their current leadership assumptions, begin asking questions about those differences.

  5. Try to have participants consider and reflect on the issues or challenges to their thinking that those differences present (that’s the “cognitive dissonance” process noted in the illustration–so important to begin the transformational process).

  6. Review the Servant Leadership attitudes and behaviors and give participants the assignment to begin practicing some of them. Just start with a few–one or two at this point is fine.

  7. Even if they do not yet “believe” in Servant Leadership, they need to appear “genuine” and not like they are performing, even if the behaviors are not how they typically act as leaders.

  8. Have them ask for feedback from some of their trusted peers after they have practiced these behaviors for a short time–What do you think?, How are others reacting?, Am I making a difference?, Do they believe me?, etc.

  9. Having previously talked about the reflective process, it’s important that they reflect on what their doing, their perceived reaction of those around them, and the feedback they have received.

  10. Provide some means for them to share their reflections. Have them write them down. Discuss these with you or the group during a subsequent session.

At this point, participants have completed an initial cycle of the transformational learning process. Moving forward, they continue to practice new behaviors, seek feedback, and reflect on what’s happening. It takes time and commitment. Remember, the goal is to make training “stick" for the long-haul.

Also, realize that when participants begin to practice these new behaviors they may do so without having changed their assumptions about leadership. They are “practicing” new behaviors and observing and reflecting on what happens as a result. The desired outcome of this process is to experience a change in their assumptions (seeing what they are practicing is producing positive results) and then gradually have these new behaviors become their “default.”

There are other factors that contribute to successful transformational learning. A big one is the strong and enthusiastic buy-in of the senior leaders of the organization. They must support the process of practice, reflection, feedback, and so on, among the training participants. They must hold these participants accountable for their development and transformation. They must encourage them, through face-to-face communication if possible, as these folks move forward and sometimes fall back in their efforts to change. This is the way to achieve a healthy ROI from the training investment made by the organization.

To close, behavior change as a result of this transformational learning process is challenging. As I have said, it take time and commitment to see results. BUT IT CAN HAPPEN! I’ve witnessed it time and time again. So, it can be worth the investment.

John Maxwell once said, “The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on Leadership Development.”

Keep learning.

Jim Dittmar

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James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute, through which he creates and delivers training and development that is transformational. Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program and served as Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies and Director of the M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program until 2015. Should you have any questions, comments or feedback, please contact him at


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