Learning agility: where wisdom meets courageous problem solving

The Iliad is the earliest piece of Western literature and illustrates the generally distinct characteristics of wisdom versus problem solving with risk and courage. King Nestor the wise might miss opportunities for gain due to his caution, but is renowned for eventually making great decisions based on his judgement, knowledge, and experience. While Odysseus has a great ability to courageously solve problems in circumstances of extreme risk, but more often than not gets himself into such situations due to his own lack of wisdom!

The title of this blog suggests that learning agility bridges this gap between Nestor’s wisdom and Odysseus’s courageous problem solving.  So what exactly do we mean by “learning agility”? While the ability to learn can be broadly defined by one’s ability and willingness to do so, learning agility concerns the speed with which people learn and the flexibility with which they apply that learning.  A hallmark of the agile learner is their ability to learn from previous experience and apply that learning in current situations, often in creative or unique ways.  Sounds wise right?

Yet agile learners do more than learn from their previous experiences. They also have Odysseus’s panache when it comes to putting themselves into challenging/uncertain situations. Like our Greek Hero they are sufficiently present and open to challenge the status quo, remain calm in the face of adversity, and be open to testing alternatives. In doing so, they are able to courageously seize opportunities and turn adversity to their advantage.

So what leads to differences in learning agility? One of the key ingredients is the mindset that facilitates or inhibits a leader from demonstrating the behaviours associated with continual growth, development, and the use of new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face.

If people have a fixed mindset, they believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.  For this reason they are less likely to reflect on and learn from failures as they see them as an indication that the limit’s of one’s ability was reached. For this reason they are also less likely to be comfortable putting themselves into challenging/uncertain situations or trying out new strategies that entail risk of failure.

If on the other hand they have a growth mindset, they will believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for the growth and development associated with great accomplishment and learning agility.  They are comfortable risking failure because getting it wrong just presents an opportunity to further learn and grow.  It is in such fertile soil that the seeds of problem solving grow.

Furthermore, decades of research into neuro-plasticity has taught us that those with the growth mindset are right. Your talents and abilities aren’t fixed and can be developed through experience and opportunity. Yet even the most growth mindset oriented amongst us can have difficulty remaining calm in the face of adversity and making risky decisions when the stakes are high. This is where our courage quotient comes to the fore in the shape of courageous problem solving.

When we think of courage we often think of the big examples; examples such as Victoria Cross winners or those who otherwise risk life and limb in the process of saving another or doing what’s right. Yet personal courage is something we all have the opportunity to demonstrate on a day-to-day basis and build and develop as a function of practice and application.  Personal courage is about acting when we experience anxiety due to uncertainty or risk – defining features of the contexts in which learning agility is displayed. Fortunately most of our decisions do not run the risks experienced by Odysseus, such as being turned to stone, lured into crashing our ship onto rocks, eaten by monsters, or sucked into whirlpools. Yet the brain often treats the risks we do encounter (e.g., risks to status, autonomy, and the approval of others) in much the same way.

So all we need to do to increase our learning agility is combine the best characteristics of two Greek heroes! We need Odysseus’s courageous problem solving with Nestor’s wise experience-based judgement.  Fortunately learning agility isn’t something you have or don’t have, but is instead something we can all develop and grow in rather less epic circumstances than the Iliad.  Some of the things we can all do in our daily lives to increase our learning agility are:

  • Seek challenging feedback
  • Take action when we experience anxiety and there is some element of uncertainty or risk (i.e., exercise person courage)
  • Reflect on what worked well and didn’t in different situations, and think about what could have been done differently
  • Ask questions to understand without the need to be understood
  • Try to identify and challenge some of the basic assumptions underlying our usual way of seeing things

Fortunately for us mere mortals OPRA facilitate a learning agility workshop wherein participants build their capacity to demonstrate these actions. Participants also gain insight and tools concerning the mindsets, self-talk, motivations, and mental framing associated with learning agility.

If you would like to discuss how OPRA can support your learning and development with proven, researched based workshop for enhancing your ability to wisely demonstrate courageous problem solving (i.e., learning agility!), then please contact your local OPRA office:


Wellington: 04 499 2884 or Wellington@opragroup.com

Auckland: 09 358 3233 or Auckland@opragroup.com

Christchurch: 03 379 7377 or Christchurch@opragroup.com

Australia: +61 2 4044 0450 or support@beilbyopragroup.co.au

Singapore: +65 3152 5720 or Singapore@opragroup.com

1 thought on “Learning agility: where wisdom meets courageous problem solving

  1. Studies 101: Adventures in People Science and Customer Service

    This was timely! I am constantly finding myself in a state of mental anxiety because I put myself into situations that are out of my comfort zone. I like to know things, and actively seek out people to teach, but this usually means I feel like I’m the weakest link in a room. Still, I press on. It’s nice to know that this may be an appropriate way to feel when you’re in a growth phase.


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