How Adults Learn Today

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Adult learners are primarily driven by three things: relevance, immediacy and convenience.


We file all kinds of data in our minds. And like filing cabinets, our brains get full and unorganized. Many adults have learned to function on a “need-to-know” basis. They focus on obtaining and retaining information if certain they will need to retrieve it at some point. In other words, they don’t want to waste time on information that has no relevance. In higher education, career advancement is the number one reason adults attend college. What they learn has to have relevance. I have often said that when teaching adults, “if it doesn’t matter to them, they won’t bother to learn it.”


It’s not just the kids who have grown accustomed to instant access to information. We all have quickly learned to download and watch movies and read books the moment we get the urge. While we all agree that there is nothing quite like the smell of a bookstore and the touch of actual paper, we turn to our Kindle or tablet for an immediate and less expensive option. Likewise, while we all know there is nothing like an IMAX with surround sound, we often turn to Netflix for an immediate and less expensive experience. Adults expect to learn the same way – fast. This is why learning on YouTube is outpacing college and universities worldwide.


Along with everything else on-demand, we now have life-on-demand. We have grown accustomed to life-work integration replacing life-work balance. The majority of adults understand that the great divide between personal life and professional life has become pretty thin. Today we parent our kids while we’re at work via text and Facebook, and we work the same way while away from our jobs. We parent from work and work from home. The question for adult learners today is not when we learn but how we learn. The when is a given – now. We need convenience to fit our now-oriented schedules that are no longer static, but are now dynamic. We scroll through our phones and tablets while in the stands at a soccer game, waiting in the doctor’s office, or catching some downtime between kid’s events.

In short, we learn what we need, when and how we want.

See how Vanguard University caters to the unique demands of the adult learner.  Contact Dr. Andrew Stenhouse, Dean of Vanguard University’s School for Graduate and Professional Studies


Great Followership: Lessons from an Orchestra


The other night my wife and I enjoyed an amazing Il Divo concert with my sister and her husband.

While I thoroughly enjoyed our dinner on the beach beforehand, and the opulent beauty of the Copley Symphony Hall, I was most impressed by a brief and generally unnoticed event that played out in the orchestra. I witnessed what would be one of the most vivid demonstrations of followership I had ever seen.

While the four singers were raising the roof with a rousing rendition of “Who can I turn to?” the conductor dropped his baton.

The second violinist sitting directly in front of the conductor stopped playing, got out of his chair and crawled on his hands and knees to recover the baton. Still on all fours he reached up with the baton extending just next to the conductor’s music stand. Without missing a beat the conductor nabbed it mid-swing with seamless motion. The violinist gently backed into his seat and resumed playing his violin.

Later when I asked those around me if they saw what had happened, they all said that they were focused on the singers and missed what had transpired in the orchestra.

What impressed me most was the instant awareness and action of the violinist. He understood how important his own job was. But he also understood how critical the conductor’s role was. He understood that he was part of a team with a much larger impact than his own single contribution, and that the entire team relied on the leadership of the conductor. He knew that the most important thing he could do in that moment was to make sure his leader had what he needed in order to effectively lead the entire team.

He was an outstanding follower.

The leader knew it and was deeply appreciative. At the end of the number, when the roaring crowd was cheering the four singers, the conductor stood to the side of his music stand and bowed in appreciation to his second violinist.

Few in the crowd knew what happened. Everyone in the orchestra did.

Great followers understand that the most important thing they can do is to make sure the leader leads the entire team.

Great leaders understand that they cannot lead the entire team unless individual team members are committed to the collective success of the team.

Leading Long Term: Resisting the temptation for immediate approval.


Several years ago I was watching an interview on C-SPAN that was sponsored by the American Management Association. The CEO of the Japanese giant conglomerate, Mitsubishi, was talking about his “long-range” vision. After a few minutes of dream casting, the question everyone was thinking was finally asked.

Exactly how far into the future does your long-range vision go?

Three Generations. 150 years.

He said that without even blinking. He was serious. 150 years?! We can barely think beyond 150 days.

In a recent conversation someone gave me some unsolicited advice on how I should adjust my leadership style to garner more power and ensure a greater career trajectory. I explained, as I often do, that

true leaders focus on the success of their organizations rather than the success of their careers.

Of course we all need to watch our career steps carefully, but the best leaders are not necessarily committed to making a name for themselves. They are committed to making a difference – for the long term. They make a difference for their employees, their customers, and for their communities. Certainly the careers of leaders can benefit. But let’s never forget that the true success of leadership is a healthy and effective organization that enhances life, both inside and outside the company walls.

It is this type of commitment that engages leaders to cast long-range vision. They are committed to ride out the tough times. They are not looking for their next career opportunity, but looking for ways to build their organization for long term sustainability.

Someone told me a few weeks ago that their company had gone through five CEOs in six years. Each had assumed their role with a hefty package from their previous company, and secured a similar arrangement in their new role. In other words, they boarded the ship wearing a life vest and were given another once on-board. They made a fortune stone-stepping from one company to the next, accumulating settlement cash along the way. Unfortunately, each time the organization was left in worse shape than when they came. The loyal employees who had remained for years watched the revolving doors of the C-suite parade with self-preservation, uncertainty, and fear.

It’s almost like bouncing around the foster-care system, one person told me. You never know who your next parent will be, or how long they’ll stay.

So what do we do?

For nearly 20 years, I have taught how leaders typically move their organizations through three common stages during difficult times. Sometimes, unfortunately, a few select the fourth option – not for the benefit of their organizations, but for the benefit of their careers.

  1. During times of true uncertainty, hostile threats toward the organization create expectations for directive leadership. People want leaders to assume control when a crisis is apparent. During these unique times of crises leaders must take charge, avert the crisis, and build the team.
  2. Over time, if the crisis still exists and the people tend to settle into complacency, the leader must fight apathy and remind the organization of the critical situation.
  3. However, once the crisis is over, the focus for the leader should adjust. He or she should then focus on calming the organization and reassuring the team that there is no longer an immediate threat or crisis. Of course lessons learned and preventative caution to ensure future sustainability is built into the course of daily operations.
  4. However, on occasion, once the leader has tasted the blood of absolute power (from stage one), he or she will often continue to heighten and extend the sense of crisis in order to maintain that intoxicating control. Of course this dark side of leadership is manipulative and dysfunctional at best.

We’ve all heard about the leaders who, in order to gain quick recognition for immediate job approval, catastrophize the initial situation. To establish themselves as the great rescuers, they over-dramatize the condition. They create a drama in which they are the star. They talk of the dark precipice on which the company was perilously dangling, and then ultimately of their divine appointment, just in the nick of time. The Messiah had come.

If you are assuming a new position of leadership, do all you can to not be that person. We all know how tempting it is. While it might feel good for a while, it won’t for very long. After a short time, people start looking around and realize that you are responsible for your own mess. This is usually when the short-term, quick-change artists leave for their next magic show. Again, don’t be that person. Instead, take the hits early on. Keep your eyes focused on the future. Appreciate the hard work accomplished before your arrival and build on it.

To lead effectively, we must step up, take control, and give direction when necessary. We must step back, stay calm, and give encouragement when necessary. We must accept power, use it, and then share it appropriately. Finally, and most importantly, we must focus more on the success of our organizations, and less on the trajectory of our careers.

Three Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Leadership

When I was sixteen, I was convinced my family needed a pool. Playing on the water polo team, I swam in the mornings, at lunch, and after school. I wanted to swim at home as well.

My parents were not opposed to the idea but were not sure the expense was worth it. I decided that I needed to present my case with well reasoned data; so I researched a few different pool companies in the area and secured quotes, regulations information, construction timelines, etc. I then took the data to my father for negotiation.

He concluded that the monthly costs were not unreasonable, but since the budget was tight, I would need to find some things to cut. He convinced me that my proposal had merit but was only possible if something else was cut out of the budget.

My father taught me three valuable lessons during this experience.

1. When treated like adults, people tend to act like adults.

Even sixteen-year-olds. Nearly forty years later, I still appreciate how my dad approached the conversation. He was open but understood the realities of limitations. He understood that there were safety regulations, financial commitments, and long-term maintenance. He understood that simply adding responsibilities without reducing others was not particularly healthy.

So after dinner one night he told me to bring in the family checkbook, a pad of paper, and a calculator. For the next few hours, as he guided me, I recorded all our monthly expenses based on the reality of the checkbook  (what was actually spent). That was the first time I ever really understood how much he made and how much we spent. It was a sobering experience to get to the bottom of the page and realize the reality of cash-flow. Still, he was open. “If you can find the money, we’ll seriously consider your proposal.”

2. You really can’t have it all.

Nor, should you. I had the responsibility of finding the resources to fund my own proposal. I had stopped fantasizing that my parents had an endless source of income that could fund my growing appetites. I saw the budget. I knew the reality. I could no longer live in the make-believe world of expecting someone else to pay for my changing yet growing appetites. Bringing home a toy from aisle nine of the grocery store no longer satisfied a sixteen-year-old. Now I wanted a car and a swimming pool. “Gimme, gimme” and “You’re the grown up, you pay for it” were no longer realistic expectations. I had to outgrow my childish fantasies.

3. We’re responsible for what we get.

I realized that in order to get the pool, something had to give. So I agreed to keep up the lawns, thus eliminating the need for a gardener. I agreed to help build the fence (a story for another time), thus reducing the cost of labor. I agreed to pay for my own car insurance, thus removing the financial responsibility from my parents who had agreed to cover the cost as long as I retained a GPA of 3.0 or higher while in high school. I agreed to make monthly payments on the car that I “purchased from my parents,” thus providing additional cash toward the installments for the pool construction. I agreed to keep the pool clean and maintained, thus eliminating the cost of a pool service.

By assuming new responsibilities, I created the space and opportunity for my parents to build the pool. While it was initially driven by my desire, it was obviously something that benefited the entire family. Through our mutual collaboration, I learned that simply insisting on my demands would never meet with success. Being treated as an adult, I collaborated with the other adults. Together we established a working solution that paid off for us all.

For years, I enjoyed that pool. So did the entire family. I still think of it as my pool though. I made it happen. But I gladly shared it with the rest of the family. While it was my initial idea, I knew it would never have materialized without the collaborative effort of the entire family.

I trust the managerial application is obvious.

High Performers in a Fear-Based Culture

Ripples in WaterSo what do you do if you’re a high performer who wants to remain in an organization that has a controlling, fear-based boss?


Remain calm. Bullies create uncomfortable situations in order to get want they want. They manipulate others through emotion. So don’t show any. Extinction is the psychological term for disconfirming a person’s unfavorable behavior by ignoring it. Ignore it and eventually the behavior lessens because it does not produce the results they were looking for. They are used to people reacting to their bullying which is why they continue the pattern. The first step in limiting their behavior is by refusing to be in reaction to it.


Don’t react. Respond. Controlling your own emotional impulse does not mean you do nothing. A calm assertive response to inappropriate behavior can go a long way. One young manager told me how he responded to his new bully-boss. After a tirade, the young high performer told his boss that he had never worked in an environment that used fear in order to get employees to perform and wondered if his boss intentionally used fear as a motivator, or if he was unaware of how he treated people. A bit off-guard, the boss laughed, said my friend sounded a bit like his wife, then completely changed the temperature of the conversation. The boss was more reasonable after that. He appreciated the calm assertiveness of the young high performer. He still had is anger issues, but treated my friend differently after that. Within the year the boss was transferred. My young friend told me how glad he was that he found the assertiveness to be direct with his boss, and did not just leave. He has worked for the same company for nearly five years now and can’t imagine being anyplace else.


High performers like to work for organizations worth fighting for. They understand that a bully is not an effective leader, no matter what level, and that fear-based motivation is not effective.  They understand that an uncomfortable conversation with HR or the bully’s boss can pay off with huge benefits. High performing employees understand that a healthy, productive, and profitable organization benefits everyone. They are more focused on ensuring the organization is strong enough to allow all the employees to flourish. Self-centered, fear-based people do just the opposite. Their primary concern is their own careers.

High performers don’t react to fear. They respond with assertive calm by taking responsibility for a healthy work environment.

Motivating by Fear (Seriously? Still?)


Motivating by fear only works on people who scare easily. And people who scare easily are generally not your higher performers. High performers are confident. And confident people don’t tolerate controlling, fear-based environments.

So why do some managers still try to coerce and manipulate their employees, managing in the archaic mode of dominance and compliance?

They’ve  learned to

They were likely treated the same way by their bosses and have learned that fear-based motivation is the normal course of management. And they’re right – as long as they work with people who were also raised in the same control and compliance culture.

It feels good

Some managers cling to fear-based motivation because they love feeling powerful and in control. Once some managers taste it, the intoxicating lure of power becomes addictive. Lord Acton’s classic warning is personified. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The manipulative manager that controls for the sake of feeling powerful emotionally exploits employees in order to feel better about him or herself. Remember, the most controlling people tend to feel out of control in nearly all areas of their lives. Subsequently, they control whatever they can – mostly other people.

So what’s in it for them? They get what they want. They get employees who do what they are told, and who never disagree (openly anyway). Now while this might sound tempting, deep down inside we know how unproductive it is to motivate by fear.

Four common pitfalls for a controlling, fear-based work environment.

Energy Drain

Employees spend most of their energy looking over their shoulders and secretly conspiring with coworkers on ways to survive the dehumanizing work environment. This leaves little or no energy for creative problem-solving and innovation.

Knowledge Vacuum

Fear-based managers operate in a vacuum and are isolated from the creativity and objectivity of diverse ideas. They function within a limited scope of understanding. While they may argue that they know more than everyone else and don’t need anyone else’s input, those around them roll their eyes, knowing the truth (keeping it to themselves until they sneak away for their survivor tribe alliance).

Underdeveloped Staff

Employees never learn to develop their ideas nor the confidence and competency that come from executing them. The culture fosters dependency, rather than independent thinkers and collaborative problem-solvers. Employees learn to ask for direction and permission from the manager who, ironically enough, ultimately resents them for being weak and passive neophytes. Nevertheless the dependency created in this culture propagates the autocratic leadership style necessary to maintain the balance.

Top-Tier Turnover

The employees who remain in this fear-based environment tend to remain under-developed. Those who strive for growth and development leave. Which do you want in your organization?

So what do you do if you’re a high performer who wants to remain in an organization that has a controlling, fear-based boss?

I have some ideas, but am interested in yours as well.

Email your ideas to me at and I’ll share some thoughts on this next month.

(Of course your anonymity will be protected. We all know what would happen if your boss found out.)

Leadership Lessons Of The Osprey


Living on the Back Bay provides a daily show of natural marvels. One I enjoy most is watching the fish jump into the air and birds dive into the water.

Quite the paradox.

The fish lives in the water but in order to capture the choice reward (bug) floating on the top, it ventures into another atmosphere. Likewise the bird, built to soar in the air, will venture into the atmosphere of water to capture its choice reward (fish).

Each is wired genetically to briefly leave its natural environment for another – one that, if there long enough, is deadly.

Yet, they do it.

My favorite bird to watch is the Osprey. While this bird generally doesn’t completely submerse in water for very long, as many water fowl do, it is the only carnivorous raptor that eats almost exclusively fish. We have a few ospreys that migrate here each year and always put on quite a show, especially when there are new fledglings.

The learning curve for the fledglings is steep. Over the [first few] months they will not only have to master flying, but catching fish before launching themselves off on migrations of thousands of miles. Some of the young will get the hang of it quicker than others. Some won’t really get the hang of it at all, and those birds won’t be around long. (

So what do I learn from ospreys?

1. Leaders see things differently.

If you have ever tried to spear a fish from above the water you understand what an optical illusion size and location can be. Just holding a stick in the water, one can see how the image bends. One advantage that Ospreys have is their brain’s capacity to adjust their eyesight to accommodate the light refraction – that phenomenon that makes something under water appear larger and off center. This natural ability is perfected through trial-and-error. While they have a unique ability to see things differently, that ability is fine-tuned through experience. Like the osprey, leaders learn that when looking into a hostile environment, things are not always as they may seem to others. They learn to overcome the challenge of a distorted version of reality.

2. Leaders can’t stay in their comfort zone.

The choice reward lies outside the comfort zone. Both the fish and birds are genetically predisposed to breach atmospheric barriers, but they learn to get better at it over time. Leaders, like Ospreys, simply are not content with what lies within their comfort zone. They would sooner starve than settle for that which is within easy grasp. They are wired differently. They are wired for challenge. They are wired to grasp the choice reward that lies outside of their comfort zone.

Perhaps ospreys are among my favorite birds because they remind me so much of the great leaders I know. They see things differently than others; and they would die if they couldn’t leave their comfort zone.