I was on my annual meditation retreat last month, and at some point during the week one of my teachers made a throw-away comment during one of his talks. He said:
“You don’t become wise by thinking. You become wise by acting unwisely, being present for it, and holding the intention to learn.”
His comment caught my attention. I thought, this is exactly what I help my clients do! As leaders, they want to generate different results than they’re currently getting. And they can’t do that by just thinking. They have to learn new ways of taking action; they have to try out new skills. Inevitably, they will make mistakes and act unskillfully at times as they practice.
In that light, my teacher’s comment provides a road map for what it takes to develop skill and wisdom in your leadership. It also illuminates why this process of learning can be so difficult and what you can practice to make it easier.
First, let me be clear about what I mean by “learning.” I’m not talking about reading books or attending trainings and absorbing information. I’m not talking about cognitive understanding. My clients are smart people. They have no trouble understanding the skills we focus on, or why those skills are essential to great leadership. What’s hard for them is behaving in new ways, especially ones that are contrary to their life-long habits.
And that’s what I mean by “learning.” At the end of the day, can you do something different? Have you integrated a new behavior into your repertoire? Can you use that skill with ease, even when you’re under pressure in stressful situations? If you can’t do that, you haven’t truly learned.
So, how do you do that? What does it take to learn, in this sense of the word? My teacher’s comment points to three ingredients necessary for learning: 1) acting unwisely (or unskillfully, if you will); 2) being present for it; and 3) holding the intention to learn. Let’s look a little more deeply at each of these.
I used to have the idea that if I continued to develop my skills as a coach and consultant, I would at some point become perpetually wise, calm, and graceful under pressure. I’d never again fumble a key moment with a client.
This isn’t a useful idea, as it turns out. For a long time, it kept me from stepping very far outside my comfort zone, for fear that I would fumble and make a mistake. But by keeping myself from making mistakes, I limited my effectiveness. I may not have made big blunders, but I also didn’t hit a lot of home runs. This idea also limited my ability to learn and grow, since I made few big mistakes to learn from.
So what does it take to act unwisely? Primarily, it takes courage and willingness. You have to be willing to make mistakes. And you have to have the courage to take risks, to take action when you’re not quite sure how it will turn out.
Learning doesn’t only require the willingness to make mistakes. You also have to be present for those moments. Present enough to recognize and own the mistake, and feel the “ouch” of it.
A while ago a colleague and I were working with a team that had three reporting layers in the room: our client, his two deputies, and all their direct reports. This team had a history of triangulating, and not talking directly with each other when they disagreed or did things that annoyed each other. Instead, they would have private conversations with anybody except the person with whom they had a conflict. One of the deputies (I’ll call him Bill) was one of the worst offenders.
The purpose of the meeting was for the team to practice their communication skills. At some point, Bill commented that he was always willing to talk directly to anybody. After a brief, awkward silence, one of his direct reports bravely spoke up. She said, “I feel disappointed to hear you say that, because I know how many times I’ve been in your office and we’ve talked about other people.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Bill, like most of us would, initially got defensive. But with a little help, he was able to slow himself down and be present with the discomfort he was experiencing. That discomfort came not only from his direct report’s comment, but also from the recognition that she was right. He had behaved in ways that undermined the health of the team.
To his credit Bill took responsibility for his actions, and even thanked his direct report for her courage in speaking. And he made a sincere commitment to doing things differently. But he wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if he hadn’t first been willing to be present with his mistakes and the discomfort he was experiencing. He had to own it and feel the “ouch” of it before he could learn a new way.
The final ingredient necessary for learning is holding the intention to learn when you make mistakes. This sounds obvious, but it’s not always that easy to remember your intention. Like most human beings, you may find yourself defensive when you make mistakes. You may start explaining, or justifying, or denying what you’ve done or the effects of your actions.
If you can remember in those moments your intention to learn, it can be easier to let go of the defensiveness. That, in turn, helps you stay present enough to see the situation clearly and learn from it. Your commitment to learning can be the source of the courage you need to recognize the impact of unskillful actions and experience the discomfort of the situation.
So there you have it.
“You become wise by acting unwisely, being present for it, and holding the intention to learn.”
Simple, but not always easy.
What about you? Do you stretch yourself enough to make mistakes in your leadership? What helps you be present in those moments? How do you know when you’re learning and growing as a leader? I’d love to hear your comments!