Are you a learning leader? Never mind that you work in the learning function. What we’re getting at are your personal learning habits, mindset and disposition. Do you lead in the way you go about acquiring new knowledge and skills?
Do you possess deep patterns of aggressive and self-directed learning? Are you exceptionally attuned to the changing environment and the perishable nature of competitive advantage in your markets? Does your personal learning reflect a planned abandonment mentality?
After graduate school, we both took a pass on teaching careers and went directly into industry. In fact, we cut our teeth in basic industry — one of us went into steel, the other oil and gas. During those formative years, we put on the hard hats and ventured deep into the bowels of two large organizations. For a long while, the shop floor was our classroom, our chance to see how organizations worked from the bottom up and the inside out.
One lesson in particular looms large from a learning perspective: We were taught a certain mindset and disposition about learning that has utterly collapsed. The prevailing notion was that people qualified themselves once for permanent competency. It wasn’t a new idea — not remotely.
People and organizations have for centuries organized around this principle because knowledge was more or less static. Then markets began to change and the global age began delivering combinations of speed and complexity that no one had seen before. It changed everything.
As we reflect on the historical role of learning in organizations, there are few principles in organizational life that have died such a violent and ignominious death as the idea of permanent competence. Despite the fact that many of us tenaciously cling to the old thinking, few developments are more stunningly clear than the reality that knowledge and skills have become temporary assets.
What does this have to do with leadership? Today, leaders must lead by how they learn. Indeed, the new relationship between learning and leading may be the single biggest development in the field of leadership in our time. If you subscribe to the view that leadership is both the primary enabler of success and the primary cause of failure in organizations, learning is implied in that assumption because the average span of competitive advantage is a fraction of what it used to be.
Leaders must enable organizations to learn at or above the speed of the market. They will be hard pressed to accomplish this unless they exhibit leadership in their personal learning habits, mindsets and dispositions.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
• How prepared are you for the transition from the “leader as expert” paradigm to one that emphasizes the “leader as learner?”
• To what extent is your personal credibility based on your personal learning agility as opposed to old knowledge?
• How much do you lean on the machinery of your organization to govern your personal learning path? Are you on educational welfare?
• How effective are you at calling forth the discretionary efforts and creative potential of other people through the influence of your learning habits, curiosity and enthusiasm in the face of problems that don’t yet have answers?
• Can you engage and mobilize people based on your influence skills? How often do you hide behind the artifacts of title, position and authority to press people into service?
• Do you feel personally threatened by the fact that your knowledge and skills are becoming obsolete? Are you psychologically prepared to show your vulnerability to incompetence as your skills become outdated?
• If competence is a matter of individual learning agility, what are you doing to prepare for the new environment?
• Do you believe learning is where advantage comes from, that it represents the highest form of enterprise risk management and that the biggest risk a firm can take is to cease to learn?
One final point: The learning leader model of leadership implies a level of humility and curiosity that is simply alien to most traditional conceptions of leadership. It asks us to develop confidence in the very act of not knowing. It challenges us to learn each time reality steps ahead of us
So ask yourself: Are you a learning leader?
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