August 2, 2022

Leadership Development and Adult Learning – The Special Case for Reflexivity

Written by Liz Cardenas, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Student in the School of Community and Global Health. Liz is also the Assistant Director of Leadership Equity, California Primary Care Association 

The COVID-19 pandemic and racial reckoning across the United States have heightened awareness of systemic racism, racial inequities, and the need to prepare leaders who can step up to social responsibility in all dimensions of their work. These events have called attention to the need to develop leaders with equity-centered skills and mindset to address these complex issues. These skills and mindsets are part of a person’s value system and worldview needed to propel transformative change. Therefore, leadership development must focus on fostering reflexive skills to handle the complexity of our diverse and interconnected world (Andreadis, 2002; McCauley et al., 2004; Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2009).  

One may ask – so who engages in leadership development? Typically, individuals participating in leadership development are perceived to be well-positioned to advance goals because of their ties to a position, a place, an organization, a sector, or an issue. These individuals often function in complex interactions and situations with people, organizations, and social and political entities and processes. Such leader-learners generally bring years of lived and fieldwork experience, come with real-world knowledge, and offer many assets to learning environments. However, with these rich assets, they may also have unconscious or conditioned assumptions and biases.  

So how do we best foster transformations in how leaders approach their responsibilities? Leadership development that transforms leaders’ inner sense of social responsibility can benefit from applying strategies grounded in the tenets of adult learning theory (Day et al., 2014; Merriam et al., 2007) that emphasize relevance, meaningfulness, collaboration, and feedback as critical for transformative leadership development. As emphasized by adult learning theory, leadership development must pay close attention to what adult learners bring. Malcolm Knowles, who originated adult learning theory (also known as andragogy) in the second half of the twentieth century, defined assumptions that demarcate adult learners and learning. These assumptions continue to apply today in delineating adult learners’ desire for control of learning, immediate application, relevance, and opportunities to test understanding as a formative feedback process and to learn best in a collaborative and respectful climate.  

These principles are integrated in Conger’s (1992) book Learning to Lead, where he lays out four key principles for leadership development – skill-building, feedback, conceptual understanding, and personal growth. Grounded in social constructivist learning theory, these principles are most effective in formative social or collaborative processes that include feedback and iterative learning opportunities. 

Skill building is the most common method noted by Conger (1992) used in leadership development and often seems to be a simple process of input-practice-output, reminding us of behaviorist approaches. However, as Allen (2007) points out, Conger’s work on these four aspects of leadership development is focused on cognitive and transformative principles. Even with skills development, adult learners need relevance and feedback and do better in peer collaboration. Feedback supports leaders in locating areas for improvement depending on the goals using a variety of approaches such as self-reflections, team-based learning, coaching, and mentorship. 

Conceptual understanding is the second most popular leadership development approach that focuses on improving a learner’s knowledge by presenting concepts and models (Conger, 1992). This approach involves integrating lived experiences as part of prior knowledge with new input and opportunities for reflection and subjective interaction between the learner’s lived experiences and the new knowledge. Conceptual learning can be supported by using video clips, case studies, storytelling, expert panels, and observation (Allen & Hartman, 2008a; Allen & Hartman, 2009) 

In thinking about Conger’s four dimensions to fostering leaders able to work with complex contexts, personal growth stands out as a way to support leaders toward a reflexive awareness of assumptions and blind spots. Leaders can no longer avoid reflexivity as a core capacity to be socially responsible in working with diverse others. Strengthening these capacities requires surfacing and addressing habituated thinking to be open to diverse ideas and innovations in today’s complex world. Leaders today must not just listen to multiple perspectives; they must be alert to whether they are listening openly or through a filter of assumptions and bias. In working with contexts of change and innovation, especially with systems change, a reflexive practice helps leaders stay alert to emerging ideas and new situations.  

From tenets of adult learning theory – leadership development for a complex world can benefit from the peer-based, feedback- and application-oriented approaches grounded in social constructivist approaches. This active learning cohort approach also supports the development of reflective practice, collaboration, and communication skills that today’s leaders need as core abilities in leading meaningful engagement with diverse teams and communities.  


Adult Learning Theory. (2021, September 17). 

Allen, S. J. (2007). Adult Learning Theory & Leadership Development. 7, 12. 

Allen, S. J., & Hartman, N. S. (2008a). Leadership development: An exploration of sources of learning. S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal, 73(1), 10–19. 

Allen, S. J., & Hartman, N. S. (2008b). Leader development: An exploration of sources of learning. Organization Development Journal, 26(2), 75–87. 

Andreadis, N. A. (2002). Leadership for civil society: Implications for global corporate leadership development. Human Resource Development International, 5(2), 143–149. 

Conger, J. A. (1992). Learning to lead: The art of transforming managers into leaders (1st ed). Jossey-Bass. 

Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63–82. 

McCauley, C. D., Van Velsor, E., & Center for Creative Leadership (Eds.). (2004). The Center for Creative Leadership handbook of leadership development (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass. 

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed). Jossey-Bass. 

Uhl-Bien, M., & Marion, R. (2009). Complexity leadership in bureaucratic forms of organizing: A meso model. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(4), 631–650.