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Unlearning For Leaders

That sounds strange, doesn’t it? We always talk about leaders learning—what is it that leaders have to unlearn?


Learning can be an intentional process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and behaviors, a conscious pattern, a process of actively reviewing, and a voluntary effort to eliminate outdated knowledge and discard obsolete practices.


Unlearning is about challenging the established and questioning the accepted. It is not about ignoring what is already known. It’s about being brave enough to question it and break down old rules so new ones can be written. It’s about looking at things in the context of today, and tomorrow.


Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Unlearning is generally triggered by problems such as financial shortages, decreasing popular support, or public criticism. It seems chaotic.


Unlearning is difficult. We all have habits, fear of the unknown, pre-existing mental models, stereotypes and lack of awareness. Organizations do too. They have systems and processes and policies that are rigid and hard to change. It is very risky to have a whole organization unlearn at once—there’s a lot to lose, leading to powerful negative emotions. Organizational forgetting might be even worse though—when downsizing happens, people leave, routines go by the way, working relationships dissolve, and documentation can be lost. Deliberate unlearning may help with some of these risks. Collective unlearning starts first with individual members. For organizations to unlearn, it seems that managers and leaders need to unlearn, thereby encouraging more unlearning through their leadership gestures and responses.


To learn well, leaders need to be proficient at unlearning, according to James Scott. Scott says that leaders often learn things that are untrue, and simply perpetuate them by passing them along. Leaders need to check out the things they hear as fact, and vigorously eject such ideas from their teaching (“unlearn” it), and replace it with truth.

  • Don’t repeat something as a fact just because you’ve heard others repeat it, possibly several times. Do the work of checking statements to make sure they’re true before repeating them. If you cannot determine for sure if something is true, don’t repeat it. And if you discover something really is not true, “unlearn” it and replace it with the truth.

  • Don’t use the unsubstantiated statements of others as your source for truth.

Unlearning is an important part of learning, and both are important for good leadership.

Adam Grant’s book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, says, “The purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it's to evolve our beliefs.” We typically do not put enough emphasis on seeking out information that is different from our beliefs. Instead, we fully activate our confirmation bias to affirm what we already know. In an increasingly polarized world, we must be willing to seek out new information, rethink our assumptions, and ultimately, “listen to ideas that make us think hard–-not just opinions that make us feel good.”


In Grant’s book, he explores Philip Tetlock’s 3 Ps (preacher, prosecutor, or politician) of how we approach defending our own beliefs. Too often, we become a…

  • Preacher when we feel our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy, and protect them with great devotion. We will not evaluate the other side because we believe wholeheartedly in our own opinion.

  • Prosecutor when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning and highlight them with the goal of “winning” in mind.

  • Politician when we are seeking to sway people with our powerful words, typically saying whatever is needed at the time to win the support.

Instead of falling into the 3-P trap, Grant suggests leaders think like a scientist. “In a changing world, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat…when you have an opinion, you realize that is just a hunch. It's a hypothesis waiting to be tested.”


We leaders must unlearn and rethink ways we approach learning, provide ideas, and become much more willing to truly experiment. New ideas will not be perfect but with the permission to learn from mistakes, we can collaboratively solve problems rather than looking for someone to blame. Grant says we can “embrace the joy of being wrong.”


Now ask yourself, “What are you willing to rethink? What are you willing to unlearn?”

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