“Return to Purpose: Learning in an Age of Collapse”

Originally posted in our March 2022 Top of Mind Newsletter.

In his fascinating paper from the Journal Intersections, Ahmed Afzaal writes about the dynamics of higher education leadership in the face of an unstable future. While obviously beneficial within his own academic sphere, the piece illuminates common errors within many human systems. These basic assumptions are, in essence, that we can return the world to a stable “normal” and that we do not need to question our leadership and management models when solving problems.

As Afzaal explores, any successful professional can stray into what he calls “single-loop learning”. Also called problem-solving, this means of addressing crises relies on the belief that the world functions in a fixed way. Therefore, we do not need to reassess our assumptions when solving problems. This model works fantastically in a fixed system. But the world is not static. He proposes an alternative, “double-loop learning,” where feedback from testing out solutions illuminates not only flaws in our strategy but the underlying assumptions informing our solutions. 


Afzaal expounds on the increasing rate of global crises, from financial collapse to pandemics and the climate crisis. This discussion then leads to his ultimate points. The first is that while colleges are very adept at teaching, in order to adapt and remain impactful, they need to become better able to learn. Learning from their failures, testing new assumptions, and adjusting how they measure learning are important places to start. His final conclusion is that organizational culture will also be better suited to return to purpose by learning to learn. Unfortunately, many organizations fall into an obsession with their bottom-line financials without considering the humanity of their own system. 

How can we apply Afzaal’s thoughts to the systems in which we operate?  

Hat tip to Bree Langemo, Ice House Facilitator and former president of ELI, for sending us this piece.

Return to Purpose