We had an interesting visit to the Mandel Institute in Israel. The occasion was the annual conference with graduates of their two-year, intensive leadership program. The theme was “professional identity”. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey opened the day with their work on “immunity to change” and we led the afternoon with our work on “learning citizenship”.

It was exciting for us to introduce the concept of learning citizenship in this context for two reasons: it is a major theme of our joint work going forward, and it also happens to be critically relevant to both the theme of the conference and the work of the Mandel Institute with its graduates. Spearheading such an approach in a place in the world where political challenges (which we would view as social learning challenges) seem quite intractable brings a sharper edge to this kind of thinking.

Learning citizenship is an important dimension of a mature professional identity. It adds the ethical dimension of caring for the learning capability of one’s professional environment, be it an organization, a professional association, or society more broadly.

For the Mandel institute, a focus on learning citizenship is a way to expand its mission toward a broad transformation of the public sector in Israel. It raises the question of what its graduate should do to expand the learning capability of the contexts in which they work. It also raises the question of what the Institute can do to support its graduates into developing their professional identity to encompass the ethics of learning citizenship and to act on it.

At the end of our keynotes, the 250 people in the audience worked at their tables to produce a display of how our ideas could shape their aspirations for themselves and for their community. A group of eight social reporters roamed the tables and summarized their impression of the whole thing. We were impressed by the social energy that the process generated.

Articulating our own trajectory

There was an unexpected lesson for us. We realized that many people probably expected a more traditional focus on communities of practice given our reputation. We need to be more articulate about the fact that our current work on social learning capability, learning citizenship, and social artists is not a departure from our earlier work but an exciting development of it, which encompasses learning in communities of practice, but expands the focus on broader learning systems and the potential role of individuals in enabling learning.

The workshop

Our workshop the next day focused on the nuts and bolts of cultivating communities of practice as an act of learning citizenship. The wiki for sharing resources, introductions and reflections took a disproportionate amount of time to get going reminding us how important it is to start this process before a workshop so people can come with their introduction done.

There was an interesting discussion with an artist about the importance of social artists in developing social learning spaces. It was helpful to view all kinds of artists as shaping narratives through different media.

We were challenged to articulate what learning citizenship looks like inside a community of practice. What kind of modeling is required by leaders to inspire a great learning capability? We talked about the spirit of inquiry, the development of trust, the ethics of mutual responsiveness, the cultivation of high value for time. But what else does it mean to be a good learning citizen in a community of practice? Much more work to do on this.

After our workshop we had a long conversation with an artist who had been inspired to start a community of practice among artists who take on a social mission, such as working with children. She thought that her fellow artists needed a community to explore the deeper meaning of an artist’s involvement in social causes. What a great idea. If our visit to Israel has done nothing else but inspire her to plan this wonderful act of learning citizenship, we can view it as a worthy trip.

A cultural experience

At a more personal level, our trip was also a cultural exploration. We were treated to a visit of old Jerusalem and to the sight and sounds of markets, with sumptuous fresh fruit and vegetables, and the taste of fresh pomegranate juice, humus and halva.

We had rather jokingly been warned by the conference organizers that managing people in Israel is like herding cats so we shouldn’t have been surprised when, during the keynote, we invited people to reflect in groups at their table it was almost impossible to regain their attention. We had to laugh at ourselves although some people, including the organizers, were embarrassed!

This experience contrasted with our conversations about Jewish identity and our participation in collective rituals. Overall we found in Israel an intriguing interplay between a longing for a collective identity and an emphasis on individual independence. Our entire trip helped us gain a more concrete sense of the complexity of the place and its social systems.