This week’s post comes from Lieutenant Colonel Eric McCoy, sitting Battalion Commander of 4th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.  Chevy had the fortune of teaching with him in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy and work with him through the Excel Scholars Program, a professional development forum aimed at recruiting, building, mentoring and assisting minority Cadets to become leaders within the Corps and potentially earn prestigious graduate school opportunities.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams

President John F. Kennedy once mentioned, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to one another.”  Often, the best leaders we have worked with are the best learners.  Providing purpose, direction, and motivation to teammates from diverse cultural environments requires that leaders have varying degrees of empathy and social skill to address their needs properly.   As such, professional development focused on being aware of differences in culture and learning style is essential to any professional development strategy dedicated to increasing the competencies of our leaders in the human dimension.

Learning styles can be defined as an individual’s natural or habitual pattern of acquiring and processing information in learning situations such as the classroom.    There are several professional readings, primarily from the field of pedagogy, that address the positive aspects of teachers using these techniques to engage their students by adapting engagement methods to fit each student’s learning style.  Opponents of the concepts discussed in these readings believe that there is no evidence that identifying a student’s learning style produces better classroom outcomes. [1]  However, there is a strong argument that if leaders take the time to understand how members of their teams learn, they can direct their styles of influence to achieve better organizational outcomes.

During my time teaching PL300: Military Leadership at the US Military Academy, I participated in the Center for Faculty Excellence’s Master Teacher Program.  One of the texts we were required to read was McKeachie’s Teaching Tips.  In the book, there are several chapters on how teachers can become more effective in the classroom.  Military leaders looking to find innovative ways of engaging their subordinates can utilize many of the book’s chapters.  In Chapter 12 of the text, the chapter author provides advice to the readers for useful cultural guidelines that can bridge the gap with underrepresented minority groups.  First, he addresses recommended tips for dealing with eye contact, nonparticipation, and other nonverbal communication disparities between cultural groups.  Second, he discusses what the reader should do if a student is reluctant to speak up and dealing with students who communicate in a circular versus linear pattern.  Third, he discusses cultural differences in motivation and perception of stressors among underrepresented minorities.  Finally, Suinn advocates matching the learning styles of students, being concrete, enhancing performance measurement, choosing appropriate non-verbal behaviors, and being accessible as strategies for combating the challenges of teaching culturally diverse students.   As our military looks to become more representative of the society we serve, several of these techniques may be useful in bridging the potential divides between leaders and the led.

Another useful reading for leaders interested in understanding how their team learns is entitled On Learning Styles.  Written by Harvey Brightman, it discusses assessment of learning styles using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  The MBTI is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.[2]    He identifies techniques for teaching extraverted versus introverted students, sensing versus intuitive students, thinking versus feeling students, and judging versus perceptive students.  The authors of these readings infer that understanding the personality type of your subordinates, their preferred ways of learning, and ideal workplace environment can help leaders effectively deal with situations that do not necessarily match the preferred style of the leader or their subordinates.

I would also recommend reviewing Learning Styles and Strategies.  Written by Richard Felder and Barbara Solomon from North Carolina State University, it provides recommendations for teaching strategies as well based on feedback from their online Learning Styles Inventory.  They discuss classroom-learning techniques for active versus reflective, sensing versus intuitive, visual versus verbal, and sequential versus global learners.  In other works related to this manuscript, the authors advocate that teachers should strive for a balance of instructional methods as opposed to trying to teach each student according to their exclusive preference.[3]  There are possible implications for leaders; in recent editorials and opinion pieces, various authors have made the argument that leaders misunderstand the needs and desires of millennial members of the military.  Having balance in what leadership styles you apply based on how millennials learn about their environments can pay dividends for organizational performance.

The final text I would recommend to military leaders is Learning Styles Can Become Learning Strategies.  It posits that learning styles can aid in faculty (and leader) development by drawing attention to the fact that learners differ and faculty should consider that in their teaching plans.  Unlike previous authors, he identifies some detractions from the use of learning styles; namely, that the styles are often taken to be fixed, inherited characteristics that limit a student (or subordinate’s) ability to learn when information is presented in a non-congruent method from their personal learning style.  The author recommends striking a balance between the two so that students learn to overcome their anxiety and achieve.  The author also notes that the learning styles are normally subordinate to a student’s prior knowledge, intelligence, and motivation when determining overall factors contributing to success.  In conclusion, he recommends that teachers help students develop the skills and strategies needed for learning effectively from teachers who do not match the student’s preferred learning style.

To first understand and lead others, one must be able to understand and lead themselves.  I would encourage our readers to take a learning styles inventory (as well as the MBTI mentioned above if you haven’t).  Free inventory tools to do so are available on the MilitaryMentors Self Development page!  Knowing about the different styles of learning can help leaders become more in tune with the most efficient and effective methods to personally learn.  Moreover, it can help leaders in the display of proper empathy and social skills when interacting with their subordinates.   Helping our teams become comfortable with ambiguity will help to build our bench of critical thinking service members who can fight and win in today’s complex world.

Start a conversation.  Spark a transformation!

[1] Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2008). “Learning styles: Concepts and evidence”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105–119.

[2] Myers, Isabel Briggs with Peter B. Myers (1980, 1995). Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

[3]Felder – Silverman Learning Style Model.

Disclaimer: The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense (DoD) or its components.

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