Dialogue for learning, leadership, and impact

Now is not everything

Reda SadkiLeadership, Writing

“Everything is now. Knowledge flows in real time. Global conversations are no longer restricted by physical space. The world has become immediate.” – George Siemens in Knowing Knowledge (2006)

Twenty Key Contributors have now joined the Geneva Learning Foundation’s monthly Dialogue on learning, leadership, and impact. They include: Laura Bierema, Emanuele Copabianco, Nancy Dixon, Katiuscia Fara, Bill Gardner, Keith Hampson, Bryan Hopkins, Iris Isip-Tan, Barbara Moser-Mercer, Aliki Nicolaides, Renee Rogers, Alan Todd, Bill Wiggenhorn, Esther Wojcicki, and Chizoba Wonodi. If you are curious, a few quick Google searches should make obvious two points: First, each one is a singular thinker and leader. Second, with a few exceptions, they might otherwise never meet.

Why do we need such a dialogue? Who is it for? And what do we aim to accomplish?

By learning, we mean the process by which humans come to know, organized into the discipline of education. The science of education, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis have asserted, “develops knowledge about the processes of coming to know”, making education “privileged to be the science of sciences.”

Our mission at the Foundation is to discover new ways to tackle the threats to our societies. Our conviction is that education as a philosophy for change provides uniquely fertile ground in the Digital Age for exploration, once disciplinary guardrails and institutional blinders are removed.

“What if”, ponders Aliki Nicolaides, whose work explores learning-within-ambiguity, “learning was the way of an ethical life where the interdependence between individual and societal evolution was embraced and structures reflected an ethic of mutual care, human, non-human, and nature?”

It is easy to get lost in our complex world. The immediacy of the world only heightens the need for reflective practice.

For Renee Rogers, whose coaching practice seeks to “create positive change around challenging issues”, we need a dialogue on “healing collective trauma” to “foster human evolution”.

This dialogue does not have to be abstract, convoluted, or complicated. As Esther Wojcicki, a remarkable Silicon Valley high school teacher, journalist, and author of both Moonshots in Education and How to Raise Successful People, says “simple lessons” can lead to “radical results.”

Why does the Foundation consider leadership to be central in relation to learning?

Leadership is about sense-making to navigate both the known and the unknown. “Leadership is as much of an art”, argued Robert G. Lord and Jessica E. Dinh in 2014, “as it is a role that has significant impact on individuals, groups, organizations, and societies.”

I realized the significance of leadership through engagement with the profound research and writing of Catherine Russ on humanitarian leadership and the professionalization of humanitarian work. This coming to consciousness about the significance of leadership is, in my view, indispensable to transforming theories of change into effective practice.

Can we answer the question of “how to lead” – the prevailing obsession of thousands of business books – before we comprehend how we know what we know about leadership? (Of course, if we do not yet recognize the significance of leadership or reduce it to a “soft skill”, we do not even realize how much both of these questions matter.)

In our inaugural Dialogue on 28 March 2021, my co-founder Karen E. Watkins explained her “belief that, if you create a certain openness in an organizational culture, people are much more likely to see themselves as leaders”. That belief is grounded in a lifetime of visionary dedication to the study of learning culture, leadership, and change.

Alan Todd is a pioneer of digital learning for multinational corporations. There, “change” means, at the very least, a restructuring every seven months. Eight years ago, he wrote that “as leadership talent – and talent in general – become the predominant asset of business, value shifts to the firm’s know-how.”

By impact, we are primarily interested in the creation of value in global development, health, and humanitarian response. It could be said to be shorthand for radical results. (Value and results may mean different things in profit-driven industries – but they all depend on the peculiar industry dedicated to ensuring that there remains a world where we can buy and sell things.)

Against the present and future threats that loom over our societies, we start with those of concern to the Dialogue’s known circle conveners and contributors. Then – and this is where we positively deviate from the norm of expert panels – we intersect these concerns with the challenges, insights, and successes shared by participants who may, initially, be complete strangers to us and to each other.

Our focus on impact saves the Dialogue from descending into the rabbit hole of purely abstract discussion. 

For example, education as social structure has proven incredibly resistant to change. This is a significant threat, as the gap grows between the needs of our societies and what schools and universities are able to provide. Our exploration will certainly be both broad and deep here, spanning from new economic models for education to new ways of thinking and doing for learning practitioners. 

Higher education analyst Keith Hampson has submitted this question for the Dialogue: “To what extent will alternative education providers (i.e. not colleges and universities) establish legitimacy? Will the soft monopoly held by colleges and universities inhibit the development of new forms of digital education and new digital education providers?”

Bill Gardner, a seasoned executive leadership coach, wonders: “How do we as learning facilitators speed up time-to-capability without sacrificing quality and effectiveness?”

What if you do not fit into any of the historical categories of teacher, professor, coach, trainer, or instructional designer? Key to the Dialogue is the recognition that the lens of education needs to expand to include other professions that increasingly recognize the centrality of how we come to know.

Image: Detail of a sculpture found in the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyère, Switzerland. Personal collection.