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Learning Culture and Leadership

When asked to consider what learning culture and leadership have to do with one another, we might focus our attention on the following three success stories.

The Toyota Production System (TPS)

Perhaps one of the best examples of a learning culture in action is the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Based on the philosophy of the complete elimination of all waste in pursuit of the most efficient methods, TPS has evolved through many years of trial and error to improve efficiency based on the Just-in-Time concept developed by Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder (and second president) of Toyota Motor Corporation.

Team Working in Hospitals

In the ground-breaking research by Amy Edmondson, in which she studied the relationship between error making and teamwork in hospitals, she identified that better teams reported higher error rates. In other words, they spotted mistakes and learned from them, refining their performance through learning.

A Slow Learning Culture – The Post-It Note

The Post-It note story: Dr Spencer Silver was working at 3M to create a strong adhesive for planes, but instead of a strong adhesive, he made a very weak one. He shared his weak adhesive with colleagues and tried to encourage people to think about ideas for its use, but no one could think of what it could be helpful for.

Five years later, an engineer, Art Fry, was singing in his church choir. Fed up with losing the bits of paper he used to mark the pages, he recalled Dr Silver’s adhesive. He stumbled upon the idea of using it to softly stick paper to paper and remove it without doing any damage!

The Post-It note was born and is now one of the top 5 office products in the world!

It’s easy to see why deploying a learning culture has plenty of benefits, so why isn’t it deployed more?

What Prevents a Learning Culture Through Leadership?

The Blame-Game

If people are in fear in an organisation, their main objective is to avoid making mistakes. A blame culture often drives fear.

Here we share a few examples of situations that drive fear in organisations:

  • Being named and shamed if someone has an unsuccessful idea

  • Making a mistake that causes another department to pick up the pieces or costs the organisation financial loss

  • Investing in something that doesn’t have the desired business impact

People are less likely to make suggestions, be innovative and try something new in an environment where blame is high. Instead, they will stick to the tried and tested ways, even if those tried and tested ways are less efficient, harm customer satisfaction or cost the organisation more money than alternative methods.


Leaders who have and set exceptionally high standards can be excellent, so long as they know how to avoid overdoing the strength of having high standards, which can then tip into perfectionism. Perfectionist leaders want their organisations to be the very best.

The paradox here is that to be the best, the perfectionist leader must be comfortable with imperfection to enable growth through mistakes.

Perfectionist leaders tend to:

  • Set exceptionally high & unrealistic expectations of those who work with them

  • Want to be certain that all risks have been managed and success is highly likely

  • See incomplete ideas, pilots and prototypes as reputational risk and something to avoid

Perfectionism stifles creativity and innovation. It can inhibit people from trying something new, as they know the expectation is that it needs to be perfect or it won’t even get past the perfectionist leader.

A perfectionist leader can prevent engaged and willing people from using their talents because they know that to get interest from the leader, it needs to be close to 100% perfect to get the green light.

Being Blind To The Benefits of Reflective Practice

A leader who is blind to the benefits of reflective practice sees reviewing projects, programmes and investments that have not been successful as a waste of time, money and energy.

However, the risk is that the valuable lessons learned from such reflection are lost and, therefore sadly, frequently repeated.

A few examples of lessons learned from reflective practice:

  • Root-cause analysis misdiagnosed

  • Fail-safe learning environment not seen as an essential part of testing

  • Clarity of project purpose miscommunicated

In today’s modern world, we work at a fast pace. The talk is very much about the future, what’s next, how will we plan for a VUCA world, etc.

Yet, just this last year alone has given us some great opportunities for reflective practice. What have we learned about ourselves as we worked through a pandemic, how did we operate as a leadership team, what went well, what would we do differently?

How Do We Create A Learning Culture Through Leadership In Our Organisation?

There are many ways to create a learning culture. The foundation, however, sits firmly with the fantastic work of Amy Edmondson on psychological safety.

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson talks about the ability to feel that you can speak openly and honestly without fear and risk of reprimand when sharing something that might be seen as unfavourable. She offers the thought that feedback to a senior can be hard to deliver.

Still, in providing that feedback, the junior person has, in some cases, saved a person’s life. She clarifies that it is about candour and that it’s not about being sweet and nice to each other or placating people. It’s about being open to the fact that there may be different ways to approach things and new things to learn, and that’s okay.

She shares that people might experience this pushback, new ideas or difference of thought as conflict, and knowing how to navigate that is part of creating a trusting and safe culture. Read more of Amy’s work: The Fearless Organization.

Create Fail-Safe Learning Hubs

As a leader – be in the hub first.

Share mistakes that you have made and lessons that you have learned, ideally choose something visible that your colleagues can relate to, such as a recent initiative that you lead, a way in which you introduced a new concept, yet later regretted, etc.

Show appropriate vulnerability.

When people see a leader role-modelling a learning culture, they know:

  1. It’s okay to make mistakes around here and learn from them.

  2. They are empowered to put their knowledge, skills and behaviours to good use for this organisation.

  3. The organisation values difference, diverse thinking, uniqueness, creativity and innovation – “It’s a safe place to be, where I’m valued for what I offer.”

Learning Culture And A Coaching Culture Go Hand-in-Hand

Walk into an organisation with a coaching culture, and you will be walking into an organisation with a culture of learning. Why? Because they go hand-in-hand.

Ensure your leaders have the option to have 1:1 leadership coaching, as this is one of the best ways for your leaders to experience the benefit of learning through their own experiences. Leadership coaching offers a safe place for leaders to share, reflect on mistakes, learn and grow – exactly the culture you want them to create for those around them! They can choose to share this learning in a fail-safe learning hub!

Next, consider investing in a coaching programme that will develop your leaders and managers to deploy coaching skills to fuel a learning culture.

To kickstart this, why not finish this blog by setting yourself a challenge to ask these three questions today:

Learning and coaching culture questions that you can use today

What have you learnt from this experience?

What successes would you take forward?

What would you do differently next time?

You might do this in a 1:1, a team meeting, or you might create your first ‘fail-safe learning hub’, and when you do, be sure to drop us a line and let us know how you get on!

Book a call with Zoe to discuss your organisation’s:

  • Leadership coaching

  • Team coaching

  • Creating a coaching/learning culture

  • Coaching skills for leaders & managers


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