How to be a F***ing Good Learning Leader

Someone recently told me “You’re a f***king good leader”.

Not good. F***kinggood.

At that moment I realized, that was single greatest compliment I had ever had in my professional career.
And it was now my ultimate goal to hear it again.

No matter how conservative you are, and how you might want to shy away from the language, if you are leader, you dream of hearing the exact same feedback from your team.

And I’m going to tell you how to get it.

Since we crawled out of the muck, human beings needed 4 things.  To breed, to eat, to have shelter, to feel safe.
That’s it boys and girls.  Your four objectives as a learning leader.  If ever you don’t hear great feedback from the team, you’ve missed one.

First, you don’t need to be a classically trained manager to be a great learning leader.  Of course, you are foolish to disregards proven tools, techniques and education.  A leader in any field should seek to grow and become more competent.  But having these does not mean you are great.  It means you are equipped. (and that’s good!)  The greatest leaders of our time were not great because they were trained to be so.  They were great because they were passionate, clever, empathetic, forward thinking AND they had tools to get the job done.

So onto the meat and potatoes.  How to be a F***king good learning leader.

Every species on earth has an global instinct to grow.  Individually, we vary, and that’s ok, but as a community, we need to bring new life into our society.  Through birth, adoption or companionship, we are built to recognize traits and features of others that we seek to bring into our lives and expands.  This is your first task as a leader.  Bring new life into your team.

First thing you need to do is recognize the traits the community HAS and the traits they NEED.  Do they have a firm understanding of instructional design or are quite junior?  Are they strong or weak when it comes to engaging client groups and managing that relationship?  Are they agile and quick thinkers or mired in tradition?

Figure out what you have and what you need and build a strong recruitment approach around it.  Remember also that you are bringing life into your community.  Involve them.  Nobody will know better about a cultural fit than those who live it more than you do.  My favourite approach.  Come up with a set of questions for you and a set for the team around the traits you seek.  Post phone interview, have two interview from the team first for an hour, then you after for the second hour.  Meet after and debrief.

There are only two rules in recruiting for a learning team:

  1. Hire the talent you need
  2. Never, ever, ever break rule number 1

If you aren’t sure, don’t.  The best way of being sure, ask yourself if it was your company, and you paid this person from your savings account, would you.  The answer is always suddenly clearer.


The community leader’s job in leading is to ensure they know where water is, where food is, make sure people have things to do to contribute towards these things.  As a learning leader, don’t ever forget to feed your team.

I’m not talking about salary, benefits etc.  That doesn’t feed anyone.  Learning practitioners need to eat creativity, passion, new methodology, interesting approaches, what other companies are doing, what’s going on in the industry, what are new tools…..  They need to be coached on what you know.  You also need to learn from them what you don’t, and coach the next down the line. If budget is an issue, get guest speakers, learn a new tool, pass around a few tablets or mLearning tool serials, have them teach each other something every month (at least!).  Make it a team objective.

Most education book publishers will send education teams books for free.  I had to start stacking books beside my desk I got so many after I emailed them for some.  Most growing learning tool developers are happy to pilot with companies or provide access to beta software.  I come across TONS of stuff every day. Be resourceful.

When is that last time you fed your team?

This is so much more to a community than houses.  People need culture, companionship, social engagement and trust.  They need to LOVE what they do.  The leader’s job is to mediate, encourage and facilitate. They are the team’s compass. Without a leader that is trusted, communities degrade and they don’t know which direction is North.

This is in my experience the toughest of the four elements, and the one that will ultimately make or break the group.  There are few things I found made the world of difference.

Be there.  I sent out a pulse survey to my team for feedback on me, and that was a number one element that came back.  This one is SO basic, SO easy and SO often screwed up.  Every other initiative you have this one needs to be your primary.  Team meetings, one on ones, be at you desk.  Be visible, be available.  Start delegating, say no to the erroneous, see to your community.

Break Silos.  Provide the team with opportunity and procedure for them to support each other.  Instigate a peer review process, an agile project management tool where they share tasks, a weekly lunch discussion.  Anything where they start sharing their business.  The more of this you do, the more they will start to lean on it without your pushing.  The BEST learning solutions I’ve EVER seen came from brainstorming with a team who totally trusted each other’s experiences and feedback.  That doesn’t come cheap or right out of the gate.

Have fun. It completely amazes me how much I’ve enjoyed the company of other leaders at peer sessions or off-sites with their spouses and children, yet they are totally different in the office.  Be yourself for god’s sake.  Don’t be afraid to turn up the volume with a silly joke or interesting treat.  Psychologically people respond to food and humour.  I love it, and its natural but it’s also strategic.  Fun disarms, laughter relaxes and comfortable people work more creatively.

In the animal kingdom, the leader is the biggest, the strongest and the best fighter.  They also are able to lead the group away from danger and protect them from predators.  The danger can be from within or without.  These same traits that make a strong leader can also destroy them.  Aggression needs to be tempered with intelligence and vision.

A Learning leader is the first line the team should want to go to for advice on challenges with other teams.  Great equals compassion, interest and shutting your pie hole while they speak.  Great also means tempered response, shrewd questioning and understanding before response.  Your team needs a voice for their concerns, but that voice also represents what the team is all about.  You will likely find you need to coach within, while challenging those without.

I once heard “The leader is a team’s meat shield”.  You can even get a mug with a picture of a steak in the shape of a medieval shield on it. Get one.

You are the team’s portal to upper leadership. You are there to ask questions about direction and focus.  You need to understand objectives that you are to take to your team.   Professionally challenge actions and activities that will hurt the performance of the team and derail what they have built. And in the end, if they are required actions, your job as a corporate leader is to lead them through adversity and challenges and get them back on track.

And that’s F***king good.


About Andrew Ambrose
I am passionate about the learning longtail for formal and informal learning solutions, leveraging social media and networking technology for learning projects, innovation through mLearning, collaborative learning and applying solutions that fit within the learners personal learning environment.

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