A few months ago I wrote about three fundamental leadership skills: taking clear stands without steamrolling, staying connected to others, and managing your reactivity. Lately I’ve begun to think that I missed one, that there’s a fourth skill that leaders have to have to be truly successful, and it has to do with learning.
Why is the capacity to learn so critical to successful leadership? That one’s easy. In the fast-paced, global world we live in today, organizations that don’t learn and adapt will fail. And, if leaders don’t learn and adapt, their organizations will not learn and adapt. Simply put, the capacity to learn equals long term success.
An emphasis on the importance of learning is nothing new in the world of leadership and organizations. Way back in 1990, Peter Senge popularized the notion of a “learning organization” with the publication of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. This was followed in 1994 by The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. Both are great resources, and Senge’s model of five disciplines (personal mastery, shared vision, mental models, team learning, and systems thinking) is still useful as a way to organize and focus your attention and efforts when it comes to being a learner or building a learning organization.
Still, as I’ve been reflecting on this topic, I keep coming back to simple questions: what does “learning” mean, really – especially in the context of leadership? How do you know when you’ve learned something? What qualities are necessary to be a good learner? These are not just academic questions for me – my favorite clients, with whom I do my best work, are learners, so I want to be able to describe learning in a way that attracts them and recognize it when I see it.
A logical place to start sorting through these questions is with basic definitions. When I posed the question “what does learning really mean?” to the LinkedIn group of the International Coach Federation, one response I got was from Carter McNamara. He reminded all of us that:
“Learning isn’t always the very deep, engaging, life-changing insights that many of us coaches really appreciate. If we limit our definitions to that significant form of change, then we’re limiting our learners’ abilities to identify and appreciate all forms of learning. Classically, learning is defined as new knowledge (information to our heads), skills (doing something with that knowledge), or abilities (using the knowledge and skills to get something done, especially through improved perceptions and attitudes).”
This makes sense to me. As a leader, there are clearly different kinds of learning. Becoming proficient in the technical aspects of leadership (for example, understanding financial documents, or knowing how to run an effective meeting) is different from learning the skills necessary to manage conflict in your team so that it’s productive rather than destructive.
Several other people who responded to my question also pointed out that learning is about more than acquiring knowledge – true learning results in being able to DO something different. As a New Guinea proverb says, “Knowledge is only a rumor until it’s in the muscle.”
My colleagues offered good ideas about what learning is, and how you can know if you’ve truly learned something. And while these perspectives all seem useful to me, I keep coming back to this thought: that being a learner really comes down to the willingness to be changed in the course of your learning. Because if I’m not willing to change what I believe or how I behave, or to let go of “how things should be,” or to even recognize information that contradicts my perspective, then learning becomes impossible. Particularly the kind of adaptive learning that allows leaders and organizations to respond flexibly and quickly to challenges and disruptions.
I know from personal experience that being willing to be changed is easier said than done. Don’t underestimate how challenging it can be to have your identity re-shaped, even just a little bit, especially in the public crucible of leadership. How many leaders do you know who can gracefully give up being right, or being the one with the best idea, in the middle of a team meeting? And yet this quality, a mixture of humility and curiosity, is what allows learning and distinguishes great leaders from the average.
What about you? What have you learned in your career as a leader? How has it changed you? I’d love to hear your comments!