A case for continual learning

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For years, I have done the following thought exercise with groups.

  1. Think of a person you think of as a great leader.
  2. Write down three reasons why.

I have done this exercise in multiple countries, with people from over 30 countries, I’ve done it with students, and executives. I’ve gotten a broad range of answers to the question, and I count on one hand the number of responses I’ve received that included one of the most important attributes of all. When I ask people whether their exemplary leader had this quality, nearly all agree, and yet it isn’t a quality that comes to the top of our minds.

That quality?

Great leaders are continual learners.

When I wrote my book "Remarkable Leadership," I identified it as one of the 13 critical competencies of highly effective leaders. I am more convinced now that it is a critical factor (and significant predictor) in leadership success.

Why learning?

At some level I know I am preaching to the choir here -- you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t believe in development and learning at some level; but it doesn’t change the point.

To be a better leader, requires (and allows) us to be a better human being. Learning is what makes us who we are. Beyond that consider this:

  • Any aspiration for growth and improvement requires learning. How can someone be a great leader (or even a mediocre one) if they are satisfied with the status quo for themselves or their teams?
  • As leaders, we must be learners to continue to get better at a complex role and to set the right example for those we lead. (Read this sentence again, either one of these reasons is reason enough!)
  • As professionals, we must be learners to reach our goals and provide greater service to our organization and our customers.
  • As human beings, we must be learners, because it is a foundational part of being a human. You will be happier, healthier, more grateful, more confident and much more when you are learning. Why? Because as human beings we are learning beings; we are at our best, and in the process of becoming our best selves when we are learning.

What do I mean?

Along with the word “learning” I’ve used an additional word and implied another. Both are worthy of comment:

  • Continual. Learning doesn’t end with graduation from school. Learning doesn’t (only) come from books. To be a continual learner means to be doing things regularly that add to your knowledge, perspective, awareness and skills.
  • Intentional. Learning without intention is far less predictable and ultimately effective. Yes, there will always be serendipitous learning, which is wonderful and valuable; yet when we are consciously and intentionally seeking new knowledge, skills and awareness to aid us in our goals and aspirations, miracles can happen.

Where you can start

If I’ve made my case, you are thinking about this now. If so, here’s where you can start:

Decide to learn.

Learning is all around you  -- in your experiences, in those you work with, in your mentors, (or those who could be), in the books, recordings and podcasts that are everywhere (when you look).

Once you decide to be more open, ask more questions, read and listen more, new learning will show up for you. Everything I’ve talked about starts with the intentional decision to be a better leader and human being. Once that intention is set, momentum can you get you started.

Get a journal or open a document on your computer and start capturing what you are learning and the results you are getting. This an investment of time and attention, and can be done by anyone.

 

Kevin Eikenberry is the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a best-selling author, and is often listed as a top leadership thinker. More of his writing can be found at Blog.KevinEikenberry.com, and if you are looking for another intentional way to become a learner, subscribe to his podcast where he interviews a variety of experts on leadership -- RemarkablePodcast.com.

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