As a leader, do you ever feel like your habits auto­mat­i­cal­ly engage to turn a new expe­ri­ence into an old pat­tern of response? If so, you might con­sid­er using a sur­pris­ing approach to per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment: learn­ing from experience.

Many peo­ple think of Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing as being syn­ony­mous with its var­i­ous appli­ca­tions: intern­ships, role-plays or even team-build­ing ropes cours­es. In real­i­ty, Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing is a research-based method­ol­o­gy devel­oped by David Kolb some 50 years ago when he iden­ti­fied an ide­al process of learn­ing (the learn­ing cycle) and nine ways to approach that process (the learn­ing styles). He rec­og­nized that the way you approach learn­ing is the way you approach lead­er­ship and life, in gen­er­al; so, this men­tal mod­el can help you approach any sit­u­a­tion more effectively.

Here is the sim­ple process to fol­low: Expe­ri­enc­ing, Reflect­ing, Think­ing and Acting:

  1. Expe­ri­enc­ing. Attend to your expe­ri­ence in the moment.
  2. Reflect­ing. Pause to reflect on that expe­ri­ence to make meaning.
  3. Think­ing. Engage in abstract think­ing to gen­er­al­ize and make a decision.
  4. Act­ing. Take some action to imple­ment your decision.

Ned used the learn­ing cycle to approach a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with a direct report, Chuck. He used Expe­ri­enc­ing to con­nect with his own emo­tions, rec­og­niz­ing how the sit­u­a­tion had trig­gered him. He also paid atten­tion to the envi­ron­ment by select­ing a time and loca­tion for the con­ver­sa­tion to enhance his chances of suc­cess. He used Reflect­ing to take mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives on the sit­u­a­tion so that he could bet­ter address Chuck’s point of view. Next, Ned col­lect­ed the facts. He could point to the eco­nom­ic impact of Chuck’s actions by review­ing finan­cial reports. Final­ly, Ned used Act­ing to ini­ti­ate the con­ver­sa­tion and tap his courage to be direct.

Most peo­ple find that they pre­fer parts of the cycle and avoid or under­uti­lize oth­ers. That’s because the learn­ing cycle has two dimen­sions, each con­tain­ing pairs of inter­de­pen­dent oppo­sites. Expe­ri­enc­ing (feel­ing) and Think­ing are ways you take in infor­ma­tion. Expe­ri­enc­ing is sub­jec­tive and direct, while Think­ing is an inter­pre­ta­tion that is gen­er­al­ized and objec­tive. Reflect­ing and Act­ing are ways that you process your expe­ri­ences and thoughts. You con­nect direct expe­ri­ence to gen­er­al knowl­edge by Reflect­ing and trans­form abstract think­ing into behav­ior by Acting.

Ruth real­ized that she pre­ferred the Think­ing and Reflect­ing steps of the process, and they had served her well in the prac­tice of law. She was required to focus on facts and fig­ures and make sense of them in the con­text of case law. When she became the prac­tice group leader, she rec­og­nized that she was miss­ing the upside poten­tial of Expe­ri­enc­ing (engag­ing in rela­tion­ships and under­stand­ing emo­tions) and Act­ing (active­ly ask­ing for new busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties). By inten­tion­al­ly focus­ing on these steps in the learn­ing cycle, Ruth became more effec­tive in her lead­er­ship role.

You can notice which parts of the process that you use when you are on auto­mat­ic pilot, and whether you’re skip­ping parts of the process that could make you more effec­tive in your lead­er­ship approach.

By includ­ing all the steps, regard­less of their order, you’ll make sure that you are includ­ing all parts of you—your feel­ings, per­cep­tions, thoughts and actions. The learn­ing cycle reminds you that learn­ing requires deep trust in your own expe­ri­ence and a healthy skep­ti­cism about infor­ma­tion. It demands both the per­spec­tive of qui­et reflec­tion and a pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to action in the face of uncertainty.

Why is Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing wor­thy of your atten­tion today? It makes explic­it a process that can empow­er you, your teams and orga­ni­za­tions to turn mere poten­tial into real­i­ty. Instead of oper­at­ing habit­u­al­ly, you can use this process delib­er­ate­ly to improve per­for­mance, learn some­thing new, and achieve your goals. But the real pow­er comes when you expe­ri­ence how under­stand­ing the learn­ing process and your own approach to learn­ing is the key to your self-trans­for­ma­tion and growth. Once you under­stand your strengths and chal­lenges as a leader, you will be bet­ter able to expand your pref­er­ences. By giv­ing this learn­ing method­ol­o­gy a top pri­or­i­ty in your life, research shows that you can ful­fill your poten­tial and be hap­pi­er, too!