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Updated: Aug 9, 2023

by Katie Anderson

How do you create a continuous improvement learning culture? You build a Chain of Learning with the 7 Cs of leading and learning!

Many business leaders are focused on what we need to break down to achieve success and innovation — breaking the invisible chains that constrain us, busting through glass ceilings, shattering limiting beliefs, eliminating waste, and shortening lead time – yet better performance doesn’t just mean all the things that we need to break or eliminate.

The most impactful leaders know that higher performance is both an outcome of what we break – and what we build. They know the power of what the right chains produce.

Intentional leaders break through chains of limitations, and they build a strong Chain of Learning.

“The only secret to Toyota is its attitude towards learning.” – Isao Yoshino

One of my life’s greatest honors has been to partner with 40-year Toyota leader Isao Yoshino and synthesize his wisdom of how Toyota developed its people-centered learning culture in the award-winning book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn.

While creating the book, I was taken by a phrase Mr. Yoshino used to describe Toyota’s approach to learning and people development when reflecting on his early years at Toyota: “I felt blessed to have joined a company which has a tradition to promote the concept of the chain of learning.”

Mr. Yoshino elaborated that this Chain of Learning wasn’t just a linear connection between links – each person – it was multidirectional. Not only did his direct boss support his development, but peers and more senior staff in other areas across the organization would also go out of their way to help him and each other to learn and grow. And in doing so, each person also learned about how to be a better leader and coach as well.

This Chain of Learning™ concept has become integral to how I talk about leadership, the actions intentional leaders take to connect purpose with actions and learning organizations. It is how we create a strong, enduring learning culture focused on people and their thinking as the enabler of impact – and success.

At its core, a Chain of Learning refers to how we are all simultaneously learners and leaders helping each other improve – through successes and failures. Learning can happen in all directions within an organization: from the top down, from the bottom up, and across any and all levels, teams and peer groups. It’s almost more like a mesh of chains, rather than a singular linear line of individual links joined together.

1 + 1 = Much More Than 2

When people support each other to learn and grow, the equation Mr. Yoshino and I use to describe our partnership – 1 + 1 = much more than 2 – proves to be true.

This Chain of Learning – of how an organization is stronger when everyone is focused on learning and solving meaningful problems and helping others learn at the same time – also reflects Mr. Yoshino’s belief that: “the only secret to Toyota is its attitude toward learning”.

The secret to a lean learning culture is not about the tools of the Toyota Production System, it’s about the behaviors of leaders at all levels to foster learning.

Organizations with a strong Chain of Learning have a culture where people feel more engaged, empowered, and connected to propose, and where they are growing and contributing to the greater good. And engagement results in more innovation, lower turnover, and higher profitability. What company doesn’t want that?

How to Create a Chain of Learning

So how do you create this powerful Chain of Learning? And, as an intentional leader, how do you set your team up to add links to it instead of finding opportunities to break it down?

While each leader is unique in their specific approach to leadership and the organizational goals they need to achieve…we all can benefit from building a Chain of Learning to strengthen our own abilities, our team’s effectiveness, and our organization's impact.

Intentional leaders — ones who are people-centered and lead from the heart — will find the 7 Cs of leadership as a roadmap to building a strong Chain of Learning that encourages ongoing learning, facilitates individual and team growth, and positions everyone – and their organizations – to succeed.

When you embrace leading with caring, curiosity, and courage…you grow others and your organization in capability, confidence, clarity, and creativity. The Chain of Learning happens when the 7 Cs are fully embraced and embodied…and when they are connected.

Leading to Learn

The core purpose of a leader is threefold: to set direction, to provide support, and to develop themselves. I call this Leading to Learn™.

Leading with an attitude towards learning…and building a Chain of Learning…is how leaders achieve their purpose, their people’s purpose, and their organization's purpose.

Yet knowing one’s purpose is grounding, executing upon it can be challenging.

Leadership is a privilege; one that comes with great responsibility. You earn leadership, and intentional leadership – grounded in purpose and aligned with actions – is what your team seeks. To accomplish the business goals and outcomes required of you and your team, you must connect your team together and empower them toward the shared goal as well.

So, how does an intentional, people-centered leader do this?

The answer is simple: The 7 Cs of Leading to Learn

The Foundational 3 Cs: How You Lead

The first 3 Cs focus on the how of leadership. Embrace these core capabilities to start building your Chain of Learning.

CARING: Our attitude of caring about other people first is vital. Don’t just go to gemba — to the place where the work happens — to understand a process or implement a quality management need. Go to gemba to show that you care about the people doing the work. Focus on establishing a human connection that starts with trust, kindness, and human connection first.

CURIOSITY: Curiosity is the foundation of learning. As humans, we are born with innate curiosity, but as we enter adulthood our curiosity is often replaced with certainty or a focus on having “the answer” rather than fostering the discovery process. Yet curiosity can be a re-learned skill that builds upon your genuine care and interest for solving problems – and for your team to encourage them to learn in the process. If you ask prompting questions to your team (what I describe as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in the Lean Mag article “Solve More Problems by Asking Better Questions: The Impact of Breaking Your Telling Habit” and this article – your idea disguised as a question) without genuine curiosity, you put a limiting box around the answer…and likely won’t get the outcomes you seek. Instead, ask questions from a place of humble, open inquiry, where you are neither expecting or leading toward an answer. Be curious about what the other person is thinking and about what is actually happening…not what you think should be happening. Be open to other ideas, and the next step in the other person’s learning. This is how you cultivate a culture of learning.

COURAGE: Courage is essential to leadership at any level and, yet, it isn’t always easy to act on. Courage takes practice…and a belief in yourself. How can you have the courage – and humility – to know that you don’t always need to be the expert with all the answers? To hold up the mirror to someone’s actions and help them see their blind spots….and to be willing to have someone hold the mirror up to you as well? To set a challenge that feels uncomfortable and seemingly impossible, but is necessary? And, to look within to see our own opportunities for improvement? Courage by its very definition means taking a risk and stepping out of our comfort zone. And when we can do so, we help others develop their own courage and confidence.

The Resulting 4 Cs: What You Create

The resulting 4 Cs are the outcomes of what happens when you lead with caring, curiosity, and courage. It’s what results when we all grow and strengthen our Chain of Learning – together.

CAPABILITY: Intentional leaders help develop the capability of other people’s skills and abilities so that they can move forward with achieving goals and solving problems. Focus on how to help the other person to constantly improve their abilities, to grow, and to become better and more capable. Growing capability increases innovation and problem-solving across the organization…simultaneously unburdening you as the leader from all the doing…and creates a virtuous cycle where the people you develop start to develop others, thus expanding the Chain of Learning. Developing capability is a win-win for everyone!

CONFIDENCE: Intentional leaders bolster the confidence of their people by supporting them to develop the self-belief that they can accomplish anything…that they can take the next step and move forward. Give people permission to make mistakes and to fail…and help them to understand that the most important thing is to get back up, and keep learning.

CLARITY: Through words and actions, intentional leaders help others get clarity on what is the real problem to solve, the challenge to overcome, or the next step they need to take. When you ask supportive questions from a place of curiosity, you can help others see the actual issues at hand, and their opportunities for improvement. This is called “convergent thinking” — of coming to clarity or focus of the best or right answer and the actions needed to make progress.

CREATIVITY: Intentional leaders help others develop clarity not only on what the actual problem is that they need to solve, but also expand their thinking about possibilities of how to solve it. What next step could they take? How can they learn? What could they do next? These types of questions help inspire the ideas of your people and bring out their creative ideas to explore complex problems and solutions. You can help your people bring forth creativity, generate ideas, and link possibilities together. This is known as “divergent thinking”—the what ifs, the “how might we?”. Collectively tapping into their creativity enables your people to tackle even more complex organizational problems and develop even better solutions. Creativity is what leads to innovation and continuous improvement.

Connection in the Chain of Learning

There is actually an 8th C as well. It is the bond between links – it is the connection between us.

CONNECTION: We are all joined together in the Chain of Learning through connection. Intentional leaders see personal connection as valuable and powerful. It’s our link together as humans focused on helping each other grow, learn, and improve. It’s the connection between us in our Chain of Learning that is the bond that unites all as leaders and as learners.

When you lead with caring, curiosity, and courage, you foster and unleash the capability, confidence, clarity, and creativity of your people. Teams are more effective at solving problems and moving towards realizing important challenges. Companies are more likely to achieve their organizational outcomes. Through the 7 Cs of Leading to Learn, learning continuously happens, and the Chain of Learning links become strong, solid, and unbreakable. We become connected together as we strive to make a positive impact in this world.


Katie Anderson is a leadership consultant, international keynote speaker, and award-winning author of Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Learning. She is a regular contributor to theleanmag and other leadership publications. You can join her Chain of Learning by visiting or connecting on LinkedIn.

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