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Human Resources
Oct 3, 2016

The Learning Agility of U.S. Presidents

Sponsored Content provided by Dave Hoff - Chief Operating Officer and Executive VP of Leadership Development, EASI Consult

Do you consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt a man who welcomed feedback from his cabinet? And how would you say Lyndon B. Johnson’s “deal-making” ability fit into his overall learning agility?

These probably aren’t questions you consider often - if ever - but a group of my peers and I recently had the opportunity to closely evaluate some of America’s 20th century presidents.

For the second summer in a row, I had the privilege of being a student in a presidential forum offered by UNC-Wilmington’s Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI). In this year's student-led seminar, we focused on FDR through Richard Nixon.

At the start of the forum, I was invited to give a lesson on Learning Agility, the idea being that it would then be used as a lens through which my classmates and I would view each of the presidents we discussed.

Learning Agility is believed to be closely related to leadership potential. Obviously, none of the men who became our presidents had any prior presidential experience before getting elected or, in the case of Truman and Johnson, acceded to that role.  

My firm, EASI·Consult®, has been working with Warner Burke, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, for about a year. Burke has created and validated a test that measures Learning Agility, appropriately called the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (Burke LAI).

There are nine dimensions to the Burke LAI:

1. Flexibility - Being open to new ideas and proposing new solutions.

2. Speed - Acting on ideas quickly to discard those that aren’t working and accelerate more promising possibilities.

3. Experimenting - Trying out new behaviors (i.e. approaches, ideas) to determine what is effective.

4. Performance Risk Taking - Seeking new activities (i.e., tasks, assignments, roles) that provide opportunities to be challenged.

5. Interpersonal Risk Taking - Confronting differences with others in a way that can generate unique opportunities for learning.

6. Collaborating - Finding ways to work with others that lead to unique learning opportunities.

7. Information Gathering - Using various methods to remain current in one’s area of expertise.

8. Feedback Seeking - Asking others for feedback on one’s ideas and overall performance.

9. Reflecting - Slowing down to evaluate one’s own performance in order to be more effective.

These dimensions differentiate people who are more learning agile from those who are less so. The more learning agile someone is, the more options they will be able to draw upon to solve a problem. 

Here is a summary of the OLLI Forum’s unscientific impressions of six presidents using the Burke LAI.



In terms of overall Learning Agility, FDR, Truman, Ike, JFK and LBJ received “High” ratings from the Forum for overall learning agility, while Nixon was rated as “Medium.” 

While Truman received votes for several different Learning Agility strengths, our group could not reach a consensus on one resounding strength.

With LBJ, the group noted more than one learning agility weakness. Most of us felt LBJ has not gotten the credit he deserved in terms of what he was able to accomplish in the area of civil rights legislation - and at great personal cost. His two weaknesses reflect his downfall – Vietnam.

Like LBJ, Nixon was seen as having two weaknesses. But the class found two strengths, as well. I had to check the data on Nixon a couple of times (to make sure I didn’t make a mistake) when Information Gathering arose as a strength.

Watergate aside (which is probably reflected in his Learning Agility weaknesses), he was skilled at staying current in world affairs, particularly in China. 

It has been really enjoyable for me to enrich my knowledge of our nation’s leaders, while this summer also helping to teach the Burke LAI. Be sure to stay tuned – next summer, we’ll cover Gerald Ford through George W. Bush.

Dave Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at EASI•Consult ®. EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email [email protected] or call 800.922.EASI.
 

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