Becoming Leaders, Doing Learning: A Theory of Leaders’ Conception of Learning in Organizations



Through an inductive study of Learning & Development (L&D) executives in 70 multinational organizations, we build theory on leaders’ conception of learning in organizations. We found that L&D executives experienced themselves as precarious professionals faced with an ambiguous leadership role and a duality of learning purposes for organizations. To minimize their precariousness and bolster their leadership claims, they developed leader identities in relation to their function, the company’s leadership, and its employees as learners. These identities gave informants a place as leaders in the organization and affected whether they took an instrumental or humanistic stance on the purpose of learning—or struggled to balance the two—and the learning spaces they made available others. Taking a systems psychodynamic perspective, this study highlights the interplay between the learning of leadership and the leadership of learning. The theory it puts forward explicates how learning is conceived and brought to life in organizations through leaders’ identity work and the architecture of identity workspaces. Showing how leaders’ place and stance on learning affects the space they make for others’ learning, this study expands the literatures on leader identity, learning, and the management of dualities.