The role of personally transformative learning in leadership development: a case study.

Author:Ciporen, Rachel


This study examined if personally transformative learning (PTL) experienced during a month-long executive education program enhanced leaders' ability to generate positive individual and organizational outcomes, and identified key supports and barriers that affected the leaders' ability to transfer learning gained at the program to their organizations and personal lives. Pre- and postprogram interview transcripts and 360-degree feedback reports were the main data sources. Findings suggest that PTL has a lasting positive impact on leadership style. Actionable recommendations are provided for leveraging learning gained at executive programs and for minimizing barriers to transfer, along with criteria for identifying programs with transformative potential.


transformative learning, transfer of learning, executive education, management education personally transformative learning, leadership development


The 21st century poses many challenges to organizations and their leaders. Globalization, increased competition, international conflict, and continuous technological changes, combined with multiple reporting relationships as well as employee and customer diversity, make the requirements of leadership increasingly complex. Senge (1994, p. 340) holds that leaders are "responsible for building organizations where people continually expand their capacities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models--that is, they are responsible for learning." Having expertise and experience is not enough; to develop the aforementioned capacities in their organizations, executives must first be able to exercise the capacities themselves (Henderson, 2002; Torbert, 2004). Given the backdrop of these growing pressures on organizations and the complex requirements of leadership, increased attention to continuous learning and a deeper understanding of effective approaches to transfer of learning have become even more critical. The competencies that define transformative learning--becoming more open, reflective, inclusive, discriminating, and emotionally capable of change (Mezirow, 1990, 2000)--have the potential to help leaders address these challenges.

This study examined how senior executives who experienced deep change as a result of learning gained at a month-long leadership development program (hereafter referred to as the Executive Program (1)) sustained and transferred their learning to generate positive individual, interpersonal, and organizational outcomes when they returned to their organizations and personal lives. In this study, deep change is operationalized as an outcome of personally transformative learning, defined as any type of learning that has a lasting impact on how individuals interact with others, frame problems, and view themselves. This definition is based on Mezirow's (1990, 2000) theory of transformative learning but limits the scope of the transformation to its psychological aspect. Mezirow (2000) states,

Transformative learning refers to the process by which we transform taken-for-granted frames of reference ... to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (pp. 7-8) The study provides strong evidence that the competencies associated with transformative learning--becoming more open, reflective, inclusive, discriminating, and emotionally capable of change (Mezirow, 1990, 2000)--have the potential to help executives become better leaders. It also makes recommendations for evaluating which leadership training programs have the potential to promote personally transformative learning, for shoring up supports and removing barriers to learning transfer, and leveraging positive changes across the organization.

Problem Statement and Purpose

The Importance of Learning Transfer

Billions of dollars are spent on executive education and development programs each year (American Society of Training & Development, 2005; Fulmer & Vicere, 1996; Reingold, 1997). Unfortunately, learning gained at these programs is often not fully used when participants return to their organizations (Baldwin & Ford, 1988; Cheng & Ho, 2001; Ford & Weissbein, 1997; Holton & Baldwin, 2003; Holton, Bates, & Ruona, 2000; Noe, 1986; Wexley & Baldwin, 1986). Because of this, many organizations fail to leverage the full value of their investments in executive training and development programs.

A wealth of literature exists to assist organizations in identifying the essential elements required for successful transfer of learning. However, past studies have paid insufficient attention to how type of learning--which is operationalized in this study as a distinction between personally transformative and nonpersonally transformative learning--affects supports and barriers to transfer (Kirwan & Birchall, 2006; Kozlowski et al., 2001 ; Kraiger, Ford, & Salas, 1993; Lim & Johnson, 2002; Machin, 2002). The identification of potentially unique supports and barriers to the transfer of personally transformative learning will enable organizations to better leverage gains from executive education and development programs.

Additionally, prior studies have typically measured if learning was transferred, rather than what outcomes, if any, were generated as a result of that learning (Baldwin & Ford, 1988; Burke & Hutchins, 2007; Cheng & Ho, 2001). By analyzing the individual, interpersonal, and organizational outcomes, the participants in this study describe generating as a result of learning from the Executive Program, this study seeks to broaden the understanding of how learning gained at executive programs translates (or fails to translate) into meaningful results for organizations.

The Type of Learning Required to Meet Business Challenges in the 21st Century

Much has been written about the critical role of continuous learning in sustaining organizational profitability and success (DeGeus, 1997; Hamel, 2000; Senge, 1994; Von Krogh, Ichijo, & Nonaka, 2000). Organizations are increasingly faced with challenges that require innovation and management of discontinuous change rather than simply fixing or improving current strategies (Henderson, 2002; Vaill, 1996). These challenges require a capacity to question assumptions, work with diverse groups of people, experiment, and stay open to new information (Heifetz, 1994; Lewin & Regine, 2000). The type of learning that builds these capacities is very different from that required to solve an engineering problem or fix a computer.

Conger and Xin (2000) conducted a comprehensive study based on surveys and interviews with 47 global corporations and 26 academic institutions. Their findings indicated that while attendance at executive education programs was previously viewed as a reward and a way to renew an executive's knowledge base; these programs are now seen as "opportunities to recast the worldviews of executive teams and to align organizations to a new direction" (Conger & Xin, 2000, p. 73). It is therefore important to understand the type of learning that builds this capacity and how to support the dissemination of this learning throughout organizations.

The purpose of this study is twofold. The first is to examine whether personally transformative learning has an impact on individual and organizational outcomes. For example, are participants who were identified in this study as having experienced personally transformative learning (hereafter referred to as the PTL group) perceived by coworkers as having changed in significant ways? Are they able to generate different outcomes than participants identified as not having experienced personally transformative learning (hereafter referred to as the Non-PTL group)? Second, the study compares the supports and barriers to learning transfer identified by leaders from the PTL and Non-PTL groups and analyzes the implications of these differences for supporting successful learning transfer. Recommendations for assessing "preconditions" and "practice-conditions" for successful transfer are also discussed.

Research Questions

The study was organized around the following research questions:

Research Question 1: Did participants who were identified as having experienced personally transformative learning generate different individual, interpersonal or organizational outcomes after completion of the Executive Program than participants who were not identified as having experienced transformative learning?

Research Question 2: What supports and barriers did participants who were identified in the personally transformative learning group report experiencing as they attempted to transfer and sustain learning gained at the Executive Program in their organizations and personal lives? How are these supports and barriers similar or different for participants identified in the nonpersonally transformative learning group?

Literature Review

Defining Transformative Learning

One aspect of human development is the uncritical assimilation of ideas, norms, beliefs, and values through interaction with family, peers, and society. These combine and create filters through which we perceive the world and make meaning. In many ways, these filters are very valuable, allowing a person to take in and respond to new information and stimuli with relative ease by connecting it to familiar ideas and concepts. This tendency to see the new through a lens of the old, however, makes it difficult to solve problems in new ways or to see an issue from a different point of view. Transformative learning involves questioning assumptions, as well as unlearning habits, behaviors, and beliefs that are either outdated or no longer useful.

Mezirow (1995) provides a valuable guideline for distinguishing transformative learning from other types of learning:

Learning becomes transformative when a distorted...

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