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Leaders Are Learners

Leaders are learners. In fact, a well-known leadership proverb says that the day you stop learning is the day you stop leading. We are always learning for the job we have: We are reading, going to conferences, developing new skills, and so forth. But the vital questions that need to be asked along with this, that really prove you are a learner are, “What are you learning from your job, from the people around you? What are you learning from their feedback, from your mistakes and your successes?”

Effective leaders are lifelong learners. They know that they'll never fully arrive, but they can always strive to get better. Learning is one of the key elements of leadership. Great leaders read voraciously, and as they process what they learn, they write and teach what they learn. Learning is like eating and sleeping.

Leaders are like the rest of us. They often just set the cruise and go through their experiences mindlessly, checking the tasks off their lists but learning little about themselves and the impact they are making. However, research on leadership development indicates that leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

Cultivating the desire to learn is vital to your success as a leader. But you must move beyond simply acquiring the new skills you need for the job you have been asked to do. You must prioritize making certain you are learning from your job. How do you do that?

You start by listening and seeking feedback. Listening is a fundamental part of success as a leader. In his best-seller, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith states, “80 percent of our success in learning from other people is based on how well we listen.” He should know. He’s an executive coach. But there’s a difference between simply hearing the words another person says and actually listening and understanding what he or she says. Listening is a skill to learn. It takes time, practice, and focus to become a better, more successful leader. Ask for feedback, for differing perspectives, for ideas. Ask what frustrates them. How can you lead them better?

Recognize that leadership is best learned from experience. Still, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue found that leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the three phases of the experiential learning cycle.

Cycle One: These leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of “I need to learn how to…” For some leaders, the goal might be to become more persuasive, to be more approachable, or to communicate more strongly. With a specific goal in mind, these leaders can identify opportunities to make progress toward it: a new project, an assignment in a different area, a job rotation, or simply strategizing to approach routine encounters in a fundamentally different way.

Cycle Two: They find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. Let’s say a leader is interested in becoming more approachable. He or she might experiment with not sitting at the head of the table in meetings but varying seat location. Perhaps the leader might leave his/her office door open and invite team members to stop in any time the door is open. The leader can capitalize on learning opportunities by having a coach or peer provide feedback and act as a sounding board.

Cycle Three: Leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, to gather useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candid reflection on what went well, what did not go so well, and what might work better in the future are essential, but often neglected. That’s the only way to learn from experience and discern what to learn next. This is the way leaders can grow and learn.

Leaders in learning mode decide they have not yet developed the necessary skills, instead of thinking they are simply not cut out for the job. They avoid the trap of constantly seeking out ways to highlight their strengths, and search for feedback that affirms them. Simply asking themselves, “Am I in learning mode right now?” reminds them to wholeheartedly focus on their leadership development, as well as their leadership performance, and truly learn from their experiences.

For organizations to support leaders who are in learning mode, they must help rising leaders focus more on being progressively better than they were in the past rather than constantly comparing themselves with others. They can model viewing mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than indicating inadequacy in leadership. In hiring and promotion, organizational leaders can give priority to those most likely to grow and develop in a role.

Finally, leaders who want their people to learn will work on their evaluation processes. It’s much more productive and motivational to focus most efforts on developing leadership capabilities instead of simply diagnosing leadership capabilities.

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