Applied Leadership Challenges

Session 1: Exploring Applied Leadership Challenges

Topic 1: What is an Applied Leadership Challenge?

An Introduction to Learning Styles

Learning styles suggest that we all learn in different ways.  These ideas became popular in the 1970’s, principally through what was described by David A. Kolb as experiential learning which is based on the idea that learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience. It is based on four main elements which operate in a continuous cycle during the learning experience:

  • Concrete experience
  • Reflective observation
  • Abstract conceptualization
  • Active experimentation

Kolb described learning as ‘the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (Kolb 1984:38). Kolb’s model of learning is particularly relevant for professionals, or anyone seeking to learn from experience, since it refers to the organization and ‘construction of learning from observations that have been made in a practical situation, with the implication that the learning can then lead to improved action’ (Moon, 1999:20).

Within Kolb’s learning cycle (1984), Kolb identifies four stages of learning, illustrated above and described further as follows:-

Concrete Experience: Experience may be active in the sense of involving action/physical engagement or can also be broadened to include learning from a lecture or workshop, where questions are provoked or unresolved, or learning from a range of reading, where ideas need to be integrated. Experience cannot be developed into learning unless the learner has the intention to learn (Eraut, 1994). This intention may arise because of a surprise in the outcome, an unexpected occurrence which highlights the need for learning or the need to gain some form of accreditation, etc.

Reflection: Following experience, reflection in, or on, the event is needed to facilitate learning. This can be enhanced through questions, considering the experience in the light of additional sources, discussion, etc. Within Kolb’s cycle, reflection is the process of transforming the concrete experience of events, or learning, into abstract conceptualisation, allowing for generalisation and the creation of concepts which can be applied to new, or similar, situations.

Abstract Conceptualisation: Abstract Conceptualisation is the process of making sense of what happened in experience and involves interpreting events. At this stage the learner makes comparisons between what their experience was and what they already know. They may draw upon theory from textbooks for framing and explaining events, models they are familiar with, ideas from colleagues, previous observations, or any other knowledge that they have developed. This process enables the formation of theories to guide future action.

Active Experimentation: The active experimentation stage of the learning cycle involves the learner in consideration of how they are going to put what they have learnt into practice. This involves taking the new understanding and translating it into predictions as to what will happen next or what actions should be taken to refine, or revise, the way a task is to be handled.

An important feature of Kolb’s theory is that the process of learning perpetuates itself, so that the learner changes from actor to observer, creating a new form of experience on which to reflect at each cycle. The learning cycle can be entered at any stage, but stages need to be sequential.

Question: Can you think of a time when you have reflected in action? What was the initial impetus for that reflection? Was it an attempt to resolve perplexity as suggested by Dewey? When have you reflected ‘on action’? What was necessary for that to happen? How might you maximise the process of reflection within your own professional practice?

Adapting Learning Styles

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford adapted Kolb’s experiential learning model in aligning the learning cycle with leadership or managerial experiences.  The virtuous cycle encompasses, first, having an experience, then reviewing the experience, third, concluding from the experience, and finally, planning for improvement based on this experience.  Four learning styles are suggested:

  1. Activist
  2. Reflector
  3. Theorist
  4. Pragmatist

These four learning styles are assumed to be acquired preferences that are adaptable, either at will or through changed circumstances, rather than being fixed personality characteristics.   A learner can possess different dimensions and can have preferences along a scale for each.  However, it is likely that one style will be the dominant style.  Programme participants will now  “meet” our four hypothetical team members who have differing dominant learning styles.

BobBob is a Reflector who prefers to work with someone who has experience in the area of the challenge that he is facing. He learns through observation and discusses his reflections with other people, often seeking reassurance for his thoughts and rationale.Bob is often described as a cautious bookworm who will spend inordinate amounts of time studying the problem from books, articles and published case studies. When faced with the challenge of a new task, Bob likes to stand back and consider the options and the evidence and think very carefully before coming to a conclusion.  During discussion, Bob will not be the first to speak and indeed adopts a low profile, sometimes being viewed as remote.


BrianBrian is a pragmatist.  He enjoys working on real-life assignments and trying out new ideas and techniques. He values mentoring advice.  Not adverse to reading up on subjects, his preference is for concise practically related texts and is particularly keen on flexible learning approaches where experimentation is encouraged.  Moreover, on returning to the workplace, Brian will enthusiastically get stuck-in straight away with implementing them with his team. However, he is impatient with people who engage in open-ended discussion but embraces those who act quickly in making practical decisions and solving problems.  He sets challenges for his team within an optimistic climate of “always finding a better way”.

Helen is a theorist.  She is often the first person from whom others seek her advice as Helen is a perfectionist and will be adamant on getting things right, organised and well evidenced.  Helen has an uncanny knack of being able to bring seemingly unconnected facts and issues into a coherent whole.  She is well respected for her rational thinking and logic. However, when it comes to the implementation, Helen is not often in the starting team and sometimes not even on the substitutes bench!  When implementing ideas, Helen is seen to be somewhat rigid in her views and not easily persuaded, most often rejecting ideas that others want to implement.  Helen is not comfortable with lateral thinking and is particularly hostile to subjective judgements.


Jitinda is an Activist.  She loves to “roll up her sleeves and get stuck in” to whatever project or assignment she is given.  Jitinda’s philosophy is that she will learn as she goes along.  She excels in learning situations which are practical and open-minded and which allows her some flexibility in terms of how she takes forward the work and learning. When considering new approaches, she likes the ‘here-and-now’.  Jitinda is rarely skeptical and enthuses about anything new.  She will try anything once and will tend to act now and deal with the consequences after the fact.  She is a bundle of energy, often engaging in what some would call ‘blue-sky thinking’ but gets bored quickly, particularly if things are not going the way that she thinks that they should. Once things quieten down, Jitinda is looking for her next challenge.

What do the Four Learning Styles mean?

Activists are those people who learn by doing. Activists need to get their hands dirty, to dive in with both feet first.  Activists can be described in the following ways:

  • Get fully involved in new experiences
  • Open minded and enthusiastic
  • Will ‘try anything once’
  • Revel in crisis management, ‘fire fighting’
  • Get bored by detail

Activists are likely to learn best from:

  • Opportunities to work with other people, or as part of a team
  • Flexible situations without the constraint of rules and guidelines
  • The opportunity to tackle problems ‘head-on’
  • New challenges and experiences

Activists may learn less efficiently from:

  • Having to take a passive role
  • Working alone
  • Repetitive, monotonous tasks
  • Situations where there are inflexible rules or instructions
  • Theoretical explanations of a problem

These people learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They may avoid leaping in, preferring to watch from the sidelines.  Reflectors can be described in the following ways:

  • Prefer to stand back and observe
  • Look at all angles and implications
  • ‘Chew it over’ before reaching conclusions
  • Take a back seat in meetings and discussions

Reflectors are likely to learn best from:

  • Opportunities to think about what has been learned
  • Listening to and observing others
  • Thinking ideas through before acting on them
  • Working at their own pace which allows them to be thorough and careful

Reflectors learn less efficiently from:

  • Activities that lack planning
  • Having to work under the pressure of time
  • Being forced to take shortcuts

These learners like to understand the theory behind the actions. They need models, concepts and facts in order to engage in the learning process. Theorists can be described in the following ways:

  • Think problems through logically, step by step
  • Assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories
  • Rigorously question assumptions and conclusions
  • Don’t allow their feelings to influence decisions
  • Uncomfortable with subjectivity, creative thinking.

Theorists are likely to learn best from:

  • Information that is presented in a theoretical framework
  • Opportunities to analyse information and develop a plan
  • Being able to explore the associations and relationships between things

Theorists may learn less efficiently from:

  • Tasks where objectives are not clearly stated
  • Having to interact or discuss with others
  • The practical aspects

These people need to see how to put the learning into practice in the real world. Abstract concepts and games are of limited use unless they can see a way to put the ideas into action in their lives.   Pragmatists can be described in the following ways:

  • Keen to try out new ideas to see if they work
  • Like solving practical problems and making decisions
  • Emphasise expediency – ‘the end justifies the means’
  • Impatient with long-winded or open-ended discussions

Pragmatists are likely to learn best from:

  • Understanding the ‘real world’ application
  • The opportunity to ‘try things out’
  • Having a clear structured plan with a definable purpose

Pragmatists learn less efficiently from:

  • Tasks where the practical application is not obvious
  • Having to work in a group
  • Tasks where discussion and interaction are required

Click Below to Explore YOUR Learning Style

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