Leaders who are intensely committed, regardless of their field, are leaders who are ferocious learners. About anything that will make them stronger, gain them an advantage, help them win.
Learning implies change. A change in what one believes, how one thinks, and what one does. At the same time learning is driven by change. Yesterday’s solutions may not remedy today’s problems. In their thought-provoking article, The Best Leaders are Constant Learners, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche argue that today’s leaders, “… must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming.” Leaders can’t afford to be static. If you are the same leader today that you were last year then you are undoubtedly less effective.
So how does one live in this state of becoming; how does one become a fast-learning leader?
It starts with orienting one’s mindset. Acknowledging that knowing gets in the way of learning. That knowing implies closure – no more thinking is required. Of course we need to have beliefs about what is and what will be. How capable an employee is. How a market is likely to evolve. But the nuance is that fast-learning leaders lease their beliefs, they don’t own them. They are open to being proven wrong … and that poses no threat to their egos. They reserve the right to become smarter today than they were yesterday.
Yes, learning can be incidental. But fast learning is intentional. Intentional learners proactively consume information, engage people, and expose themselves to situations that will accelerate their learning. Podcasts, magazines, mastermind groups, TED talks, seminars – there are more opportunities now than ever before. Importantly, intentional learners gain a richer understanding of issues by seeking multiple perspectives. Even more importantly, they don’t just seek perspectives that reinforce their current beliefs.
But acquiring information is just one step. To be a truly intentional learner, a leader must reflect on what they have learned. What does it mean? Could it explain …? How does it relate to …? Reflection helps learning to take root.
Being intentional accelerates learning. But learning that remains captive in one’s head is pointless. For leaders to become better leaders, learning must be translated into decisions and actions. To accomplish this, they must preflect. How could this best be applied? Would I predict that …? What should we do if …?
This is when an intentional learner becomes a scientist. Developing theories, conducting experiments, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions. Like a national fast-food chain launching new menu variations in different cities to learn what works, what doesn’t, and why.
It’s one thing for a leader to be fast-learning. It’s something much greater for an organization to be fast-learning. When learning gets extended throughout an organization the benefits increase exponentially. Which is why fast-learning organizations institute mechanisms to propagate learning. Sending a manager to a seminar, for example, obligates that manager to present a summary of conclusions and recommendations to their colleagues once they return.
Leaders can’t afford to be static. They must continually be learning, changing, and becoming. It doesn’t happen by default. But it can happen by design.
Make it happen.