Unforgettable Learning

Often I spend a week in a course with a particular group of executives.  During that week, we get to know each other well.  Recently I did a follow-up session with a return group.  Years after our first week together, they asked for an additional day and a half together.  They really valued that first week and were anxious to do more.  As result, on the first day, we co-created spectacular learning.

But that night I became sick.  In the early morning, I was deeply concerned about teaching the final half-day with low energy.  I was worried this might change the dynamic and produce ordinary learning.  To me, allowing a group to engage in learning at a conventional level feels like an unforgivable transgression. As I wrestled with this challenge, a new strategy came to me.

At the outset of the class, I presented an unusual challenge: “You now know my teaching style very well.  Please tell me how my teaching is different from other teachers you have experienced.”  There was a long pause.  Then they began to answer:

  • You have a soft structure. There is a plan, but you sense where we need to go and you take us there.
  • You continually ask us probing questions.
  • You make it safe to risk answering the questions.
  • You really listen to what we say. You want to know what we really think.
  • When we answer your questions, you express genuine gratitude.
  • When we give answers, you highlight the non-obvious value in our answers.
  • You often build on the answers by telling spontaneous stories that stretch and inspire us.
  • We begin to share more than we would normally share.
  • We eventually end up talking to each other and you step back and let it happen.
  • Our conversations are open and generative; we see things we care about in new ways.
  • You have us reflect on our own conversations and push us further.
  • You continually integrate the concepts with experiences.
  • We are fully engaged the entire day and end up seeing new possibilities.
  • We leave totally exhausted.


I responded, “This list seems accurate to me.  I wanted to reflect on how we have been learning together because last night I felt sick and this morning I woke up with no energy.  I could not bear the thought of us having an ordinary morning.  As I pondered, an idea came to me.

“I wanted to first call your attention to what it is we do differently.  To teach as I do when I am at my best, I have to expend intense energy every moment.  I do it because I love the unleashing of human potential.  When I leave, I am so exhausted that I usually shut down.  So this morning I was deeply concerned.  Then it occurred to me that we are so experienced together that you understand what we do differently and you recognize the energy investment.  So I believe you could do something that I have never asked a class to do.

“I invite you to replace me.  I would like you to take over the process of leading the learning and, in the process, I want you to give all the energy you have.”

There was another long pause.  Then heads began to nod.  We did a short exercise.  The conversation after the exercise was intense.  They were doing exactly what I invited them to do.  Five minutes into that intense discussion, I recognized a dramatic personal change.  Suddenly I was full of energy.  It was striking.  By leading the learning and operating at such a high level, the class was pulling me into an energized human system.  As their energy flowed through me, I was transformed.  I could more fully engage.

When the morning ended, one of the participants stopped me.  He asked, “Have you ever done that before?”  I indicated that I had not.

He said, “It was amazing.  From the first moment, you could see everyone buy in.  They all gave all they had.  I had to do the same.  There was no way to hold back.  It was unforgettable.”

When I pursue my highest purpose, which is to inspire positive change, I have to not only give world-class content, I have to give love.  I have to engage with all my heart and curiosity.  In order to inspire collective, deep learning, I have to be in the state of honest dialogue.  This disrupts convention and takes us outside my comfort zone to the edge of chaos.  There I have to live in experimentation, practicing trial and error learning in real time.

As I pursue my purpose in the midst of this uncertainty, it leads to enlightenment.  When I do this with others, my unusual donation of energy grasps attention and invites imitation.  The exchange of energy then becomes mutually reinforcing.  When every person is anxiously engaged of their own free will in the mutual pursuit of learning, everyone can be elevated, united, and enlightened.  Everyone in the energized network–including the teacher–experiences deep learning.



  • When you go to your meetings, to what extent is human potential unleashed?
  • The move from conventional teaching to inspired teaching is like the move from management to leadership. Who do you know who leads in such a way that people are anxiously engaged in learning their way to success?  What do you learn from pondering that person?
  • What would it take to get your people fully energized for one minute? Could you do it?  Could you do it for one hour?  One week?  One month?  One year?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



4 comments on “Unforgettable Learning

  1. What a fantastic story! I love how you facilitated the group to identify what their experience of you was like and then inviting them to try on that role as a group. What a great modeling you provided and opportunity provided to the group for growth.

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