Good Leaders Are Good Learners
Although organisations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programmes struggle to implement what they’ve learned. It’s not because the programmes are bad but because leadership is best learned from experience.
However, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Our research on leadership development shows that leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers. Leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the following three phases of the experiential learning cycle.
First, 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 or to be more approachable. With a goal in mind, leaders can identify opportunities to make progress toward it. These could include a new project, an international assignment, a job rotation, or simply striving to approach routine encounters in a fundamentally different way.
Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. A leader interested in increasing their persuasiveness, for example, might experiment with sitting in a different place or speaking first or last in a critical meeting. Creating and capitalising on learning opportunities can be bolstered by having a coach or peer provide feedback and act as a sounding board.
Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candidly reflecting on what went well, what did not go so well, and what might work better in future are essential though often neglected initiatives for learning from experience and discovering what to focus on learning next. Understanding these principles is important for organisations not just because it means that leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive, but also because it means that leadership skills can be systematically learned and practiced.
How can leaders enter learning mode? Simply asking themselves, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to wholeheartedly focus, or refocus, on their leadership development, as well as their leadership performance, and thereby truly learn from their experiences.
How can organizations help leaders enter and remain in learning mode? Organisational leaders can help rising leaders focus more on being progressively better than they were in the past, rather than on constantly benchmarking themselves against others. They can view mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than as indicators of leadership inadequacy.
Are you encouraging the leaders in your company to move into learning mode as frequently as they should?
Adapted from an article by Lauren Keating, Peter A. Heslin and Susan J. Ashford, Harvard Business Review