“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy
In his TED talk from February 2011 Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal talks about how after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 he had to become a different leader, a leader who in some ways had to completely relearn how he did things. This powerful talk highlights a key skill for leaders, especially leaders in today’s ever-changing environment – the ability to learn. A major challenge many of us face as leaders is that we have our blind spots, we have camouflaged them well, so we cannot see that we are no longer open to the learning and growth we absolutely need.
To become a powerful and effective leader, it is necessary to lead the most difficult person you will ever have to lead, yourself. To do that you must identify where you are the enemy of your own learning. What is getting in the way of you learning, and limiting you from becoming an effective leader? Lets look at some of the common enemies of learning, and their antidote, friends of learning.
Enemy: Inability to admit, “I don’t know.” We have all been there, a time when you are in a situation where you do not know something, but will not admit to yourself or others that you do not know. This comes in at least two varieties, the common one being you just flat out nod and don’t say out loud, “I have no idea,” and in the second, you hedge, try to buy time, giving yourself a chance to figure out a good answer or solution later. Both are dishonest, and can prevent you from learning something or getting help from the group. When leaders do this – you included – how effective are they? The thing is, you usually aren’t fooling anyone.
Friend: Say these words, “ I do not know, but I am open to learning.” This simple act can open up a powerful world to you as a leader. The ability to say I do not know opens up the space for learning, and as a leader, the space to create a more powerful outcome. This means you won’t be limited by your blind spots; a huge part of being an effective leader requires self-awareness.
Enemy: Strong negative moods and emotions. Strong negative moods and emotions such as resignation, resentment, arrogance, jealousy, anger, and frustration are all powerful enemies of learning that stop us from becoming a better leader. As humans we are emotional beings. Emotions are a predisposition to action, meaning they influence what actions we want to take. When we are in these moods and emotions, learning is limited, if not completely shut down.
Friend: Positive moods and emotions are friends of learning. Deal with your negative moods and emotions so that learning can show up. Easy to talk about, but often difficult to do. The best way to cultivate learning is to focus on powerful positive moods and emotions such as ambition, gratitude, acceptance, wonder, and awe which open up learning. This is a place where an effective coach can help.
“If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril”
Enemy: Living in a permanent assessment: Do you have powerful assessments or judgments on many subjects? Are you sure that there is only one way that something can be, and that is your way? Do you find that you are often unwilling to explore a grey area, question, or doubt your position? It could be that you have some powerful assessments that are closing down your ability to learn.
Friend: Explore where you have strong assessments. Can you ground your assessment against a standard that everyone can agree on? If you cannot, then you have only a dogmatic judgment, and that may be getting in the way of your learning. Ask yourself, “What standard am I using to make this assessment?” Can you listen to another view when presented? Reevaluating and letting go of assessments can free you to listen, to open up to learning.
Enemy: Distrust or dislike of another. I am sure you have had a situation in your interactions with another person where you felt you could not comfortably trust what they were saying. How likely were you to adopt their ideas or suggestions? Probably, not so much. Whether it is because of prior knowledge of their behavior, or just something about them that puts you off, or that you do not find relatable, any of these can lead to lack of trust. If you did not listen to what they had to offer, distrust became a huge enemy of learning for you.
Friend: The ability to realize that your distrust of the person is skewing your view of their idea. Can you separate someone’s ideas from them as a person? When you are in a situation like this ask yourself, “If this idea came from person X, whom I trust, and like, would I feel the same way about the idea?” If the answer is truly yes, then it might be the idea is a bad idea, but if the answer is no, then it is time to let go of this enemy of learning.
Enemy: Blindness to your body. Learning is an embodied phenomenon. If you wanted to learn to play golf, you could buy hundreds of books on golf and read them. But to truly learn to play golf you must pick up a club and strike the ball. Leadership is no different. Reading books on leadership is a great place to start to learn about leadership, but the only way to be a leader is to practice it in reality and in your body. Standing in front of your team for the first time will create feelings in your body, and those feelings can range from excitement to sheer panic. You are not a brain on a stick, and so must be open to experiencing and understanding what is going on in your body to effectively lead.
Friend: Openness, awareness, and wonder in the body can open a space for learning. Think about when you were a kid, getting excited about a new toy or adventure. Tap into that as a leader. Take up a physical discipline such as martial arts, running, yoga, dancing, improv comedy, or somatic practices. This time “being” in your body will start to awaken your connection to your body to allow it to become a teacher of leadership for you.
And finally, one more friend: Curiosity, and a desire to explore.
These are powerful friends of learning to resolve our blind spots and remove our camouflage. Open your eyes, your ears, and your bodies to learning. Books on leadership and topics such as emotional intelligence are great places to start to explore. Hiring a coach allows a different set of eyes to see for you, and to help you see.
It is time to face your enemies of learning. They are present in all of us, and as a leader, the more you face them, explore them, and end their reign over you, the sooner you can become the leader that others want to follow.