Transformational Leadership and the upward spiral of learning for leaders - Brighten Project leadership development for wildly ambitious leaders

The Upward Spiral of Learning

thought leadership Jun 12, 2023


The Upward Spiral of Learning: How Growth Begets Growth

The only thing that is constant is change.” - Heraclitus.

As leaders, we often find ourselves in a perpetual whirlwind of changes and challenges. The ability to not only keep up but to thrive, requires an unyielding commitment to personal growth. But how do you continuously evolve as a leader? How do you ensure that your own development fuels the development of those around you? Let’s unravel the mystery behind the upward spiral of learning and see how the concept of transformational leadership lies at its core.


🧐 Who's that girl? Understanding the Upward Spiral

Imagine an infinite staircase, spiralling upward into the horizon. With each step you take, you’re ascending to greater heights in your leadership journey - this perfectly describes your leadership growth. You start by learning something new; this could be knowledge, a skill, or an insight. The acquisition is not the end; it's the very beginning. You then create - adapt what you’ve learned to your unique context. This creation is then applied in the real world, and the cycle repeats, propelling you upwards. You might remember this referenced in How Leaders Learn, so let's dive into the spiral in more detail. 

The upward spiral is inspired by Stephen Covey's upward spiral in his book Seven Habits, and I've adapted it for the leaders that I work with. My leadership growth concept is about learning and how each step up symbolises a level up in your understanding and application of knowledge. It’s a metaphor for the infinite potential that continuous learning holds. Imagine a spiral, ever-rising and expanding. Each loop of the spiral represents a cycle of learning, and with every cycle, you build upon the last, constantly evolving.


🌀 The Upward Spiral: Learn-Create-Apply

  1. Learning: We start with the 'Learning' phase. As a leader, learning is about SPONGING 🧽 - taking the opportunity to learn. Break out of the obvious learning styles e.g. reading a book, and actually broaden your opportunity to learn - think about podcasts, courses. absorbing experiences, learning from mistakes, and paying attention to feedback. It's about broadening your horizons and being receptive to new ideas. It's uncovering new theories and ideas, new concepts, new skills.
  2. Creating: The 'Create' phase is where you personalise this learning. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. You need to take the general concepts and mould them to fit your unique context. Through reflections and practical exercises, make the theory yours. For example you might learn about "resilience" as a skill, the theory and background and origins, but then you need to make it yours with practical exercises and almost recreate the theory but in your own words and through the lens of how you'll apply it. 
  3. Applying: Next up is the 'Apply' phase. Here’s where the juice 🍊 is. You need to take your custom-tailored knowledge out for a spin. To continue using the "Resilience" example, you'd go and test out the techniques you've created from the theory. This is where you’ll see if your adaptation of the theory holds up in practice. What's working and what's not?


📈  The Compounding Effect of Continuous Learning

Now, the magic happens. This is where you REALLY start to make it rain - in the learning and growth sense of course. As you keep engaging in this Learn-Create-Apply cycle, the effects compound. With every cycle, you're not just adding to your knowledge base; you're multiplying your insights and understanding. This compounding effect is what gives the upward spiral its upward trajectory.


👩‍🎤 Oh hello! The Power of Transformational Leadership in Fuelling the Spiral

I want to introduce you to the theory of TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP. Without overwhelming you, I really like this theory because it inherently supports the continuous cycle of learning, inspiring, and adapting, which is crucial for both personal and organisational growth and success. This theory is the driving force behind the upward spiral. Transformational Leadership is not just about checking off boxes; it’s about initiating change and inspiring others. It’s about looking beyond day-to-day tasks and focusing on long-term goals and innovations.

6 things you need to know about transformational leadership

  1. Origins and Evolution: Transformational leadership theory was first introduced by James V. Downton and later popularised by James MacGregor Burns in 1978. It is built around the idea that leaders can inspire and elevate their followers to achieve remarkable results. Linking this to the Upward Spiral, it reminds us that through our own growth we will achieve epic things but we'll also inspire others to do epic things too!

  2. The 4 I’s: Transformational leadership hinges on four key components: Idealised Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, and Individualised Consideration. Together, these elements form the foundation for effective transformational leadership.

  3. Encouraging Innovation: One of the core components, Intellectual Stimulation, is closely tied to the "Learn" stage of the upward learning spiral. Transformational leaders challenge assumptions and foster creativity, encouraging followers to continuously learn and think outside the box. When we role model our own growth, we make the path clearer and safer for others to learn, grow, try, fail, try again, succeed and so on. 

  4. Inspiring Action: Inspirational Motivation aligns with the "Create" stage of the learning spiral. Transformational leaders are adept at communicating a clear and positive vision for the future, motivating followers to create and engage meaningfully with their roles.

  5. Applying and Adapting: Transformational leaders not only inspire and stimulate intellectually but also encourage practical application. This mirrors the "Apply" stage of the learning spiral, where followers are encouraged to implement their learnings, and continuously adapt based on experiences.

  6. Continuous Growth and Performance: Transformational leadership supports an environment conducive to the upward spiral of learning, as it fosters continuous personal and professional growth. This style of leadership has been linked to enhanced performance and higher levels of job satisfaction among followers.

In essence, transformational leaders are the embodiment of the upward spiral - this is the style of leadership that I want for you, and the style of leaders that I help to coach - transforming yourself, your team, your business, your future.

Transformational leaders continuously learn and adapt, and in doing so, they inspire those around them to do the same. Their thirst for knowledge and improvement creates an atmosphere that encourages innovation and discourages stagnation. When I work with leaders, one of my biggest green flags that I look for is their ability to be able to take feedback, hear and understand it, and then learn how to get a better result next time. When I'm working with a leader who receives the feedback but then the next month we are talking about the same issue and they haven't taken any action to rectify if - that's when we start having a different discussion about transformational leadership and figuring out what is stopping them - what obstacle is in the way on their upward spiral of learning that is preventing them from being able to grow as a person and as a leader.

The beauty of the upward spiral of learning is that there is no end. There’s always room for growth, for new knowledge, for better understanding. As a transformational leader embracing the upward spiral, your growth begets growth, not just for yourself but for those around you and the organisation you’re a part of.


🪞 My favourite time: Reflection

It’s important to pause and reflect on how far you’ve come - partly to go (yay, I've grown, I'm amazing and inspiring) and partly to go (hmmmm.... what do I need to learn/create/apply here).

  • Are your actions and learnings still in line with your career and leadership goals and values?
  • What have you learned recently, but didn't create your own version of the theory so it hasn't materialised in a real skill yet?
  • How are you sharing your knowledge and supporting others in their growth journeys?
  • What reflections or re-evaluations have led to significant changes in your approach to leadership?


We've talked a lot about learning over the last few months, and we've also talked about the Upward Spiral before - but my core point today is to keep going. Keep learning, keep stacking your skills and don't stop. Sure, slow down and take a rest if you need to, but don't stop. If you want the career, the future, the opportunities, the transformation that you've been chasing, just keep taking it one step at a time.

Happy learning!



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