Leadership is the Act of Learning

Portrait Of A Female Student

Are the best leaders currently excellent?  No, they are not.  The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.  Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:

  • “First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
  • “Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
  • “Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights form the results of their experimentation.”

The authors identify several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality that are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.”  Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders; how useful is this information if you can’t see an upward trend?  If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules?  Surely the best leaders are the one who can move upward and onward from any new starting point, regardless of how excellent their performance is currently.  You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders.

Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems.  Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators and anoint those at a high performance level as those worthy of recognition.  But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes.  Especially if they were learning and leading along the way.

Leadership Development, Workplace Engagement, and the Learning Organization

My personal interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is just the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace with a learning-organization mindset.  That is, if you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel.  And when they excel, the business will perform better.  So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.

Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace culture of high trust and two-way communication.  Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders.  Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.

It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence.  Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.

Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set.  But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.

4 thoughts on “Leadership is the Act of Learning

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