Three Learning and Motivation Practices for 21st Century Leaders


In my previous article on actionable leadership techniques, I surveyed the first four of the seven leadership practices that can serve to enhance leadership qualities in the 21st Century. These techniques are described in Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age, a white paper recently published by Skillsoft Leadership Channel. It is based on a study in which participants provided their views on the leadership requirements in this century compared with what was required in the 20th Century. In excess of 1,100 respondents participated from around the world.

The first four leadership practices center on translating a leader's intention into action. They include techniques for overcoming fear, managing time, setting deadlines and acting through others. Skillsoft's other three practices focus on how best to learn and motivate for maximum impact. Learning in an ever-changing world and motivating oneself and others are undoubtedly critical leadership skills. So, let us now consider how Skillsoft treats these and what we can add to our own leadership toolkit.

About the Velocity of Learning

The point of focusing on both speed and direction (i.e., velocity) of learning is to remind us what athletes and their coaches already know. And that is that although repetitive practice builds strength, innovative performance and learning comes only from the stretch. If you don't push yourself to the outer limits of your endurance (i.e., the direction of your learning), you won't improve. On the other hand, if you go too far too fast, you are more likely to fail (and injure yourself).

The place to build innovative competence is at the outer extreme of your current ability, and just this side of the challenge. The successful learning edge is at a place where you are more likely to succeed than fail, which is good for your confidence, but where the risk of failure is real enough that you don't become overconfident.

Such learning is incremental. As you take on something small but on the edge of what you can handle, and you succeed, you are able to take on something similar, but more challenging, and succeed again. Over time, you can act in ways that previously you would have considered totally impossible. There's a reason why "taking baby steps" is an oft-heard phrase in training programs.

Finessing What Is Praised

The Skillsoft paper describes a 1998 study undertaken by Stanford psychology Professor, Carol Dweck, in which 400 5th grade students were studied for their responses to differential forms of praise. One group was praised for their talent in successfully performing certain tasks, whereas another was praised for their efforts.

The students who were praised for effort outperformed the "talented" students as the study progressed through various stages of assessment. The "talented" students were found to opt for easier tasks, to be more prone to lying or being boastful when they failed to complete their tasks, and ultimately to underperform when compared with the students who had been praised for their effort.

Professor Dweck has since refined the concept to distinguish between "growth" and "fixed" mindsets. She advocates strongly for a growth mindset to underpin learning in any situation. Being praised for effort supports the potential for growth. Talent is "fixed". If you perceive yourself as talented and then fail, it is a personal failure and that's the end of it. You may be embarrassed, demotivated, or even angry, but you are unlikely to push yourself because you are limited by your fixed talent. If, on the other hand, you perceive your failure as being the result of not having made enough of an effort, you can always boost your effort and recover. Your focus on effort comes from the process-oriented encouragement or praise you receive.

When translated into a work environment, this technique underpins the rule of giving context when giving feedback. Don't just say "Well done!" or "You're really good at that!" Say, "It was a difficult assignment and I liked the way you persevered until you got it right."

Purposeful Performance

The Skillsoft study describes a fascinating finding from research undertaken some time ago by Professor Adam Grant at the Wharton School of Business. Working with a group of students making cold calls to solicit contributions for the university's scholarship fund, Grant discovered that the group that had the opportunity to speak directly to an actual scholarship recipient had such a vivid sense of purpose that they achieved a 250% greater success rate in raising funds on their calls than the other groups.

In goal-setting training we tell managers to envision, vividly, what the completed goal would look like. Good goal-setters also ask their customers what would satisfy them and then work to deliver that satisfaction. Not only does such a question reduce the risk of misunderstanding and misdirection, it gives the performer of the task a true sense of purpose and a greater likelihood of success.

After considering the first four techniques I discussed in my previous article, I concluded that by following them a 21st Century leader could be confident, ready to act, be deliberate in managing time and be an effective motivator. When I now look at the aggregation of the seven techniques put forward by the researchers, my conclusion can be fleshed out.

The seven "techniques" are not discrete, stand-alone steps that can be followed in a mechanistic way. They contain nuances of each other. They overlap and complement. Let me illustrate with some concluding points.

  • By working incrementally from within your comfort zone, inertia is a less powerful force to overcome. You can move into action gradually. Rome, after all, wasn't built in a day. Nor was Microsoft.
  • Overcome fear and build confidence by recognizing the things that are in your control.
  • Escalate your innovative learning by progressing in small steps within the boundary of the things you can control toward the unknown, where the real challenges lie.
  • Develop and encourage a growth mindset in the process of learning.
  • Achieve success by taking "baby steps", building confidence and pushing fear into a realistic signal of risk rather than a total immobilizer.
  • Process with purpose is motivational. Enable employees to experience first-hand the purpose of their work and praise them for their efforts and the results thereof - connected to the original purpose.
  • Prioritizing is valuable only if you recognize that time is a variable that needs constant monitoring and managing. Put at the top of your list practicing the techniques that will build your resilience and help you become more collaborative and creative. And then focus on passing these skills on to the rest of the people in your organization.

Your task now is to review the seven leadership techniques and make them actionable in your professional life. Give your goal of personal growth a sense of immediacy and start today!


  • Skillsoft Ireland Limited (2012). Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age
  • The Science: The Growth Mindset

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at

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Find out more about how to improve the impact of your learning programs. Check out Leslie's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

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