The Learning Leader

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One of the most discouraging things I have heard from different leaders in the past year is that “I don’t have enough time to read all of these things.” There is truth to this.  Time is precious, and its a gift.  That’s why it is important to prioritize what one does in their work and as a leader.

My parents and my wife and I upon graduating from Luther Seminary (May 2012)
My parents and my wife and I upon graduating from Luther Seminary (May 2012)

Whether its reports, blogs, articles, publications, newest books, etc, one of the things that I encourage any leader to do is to make the time to read and learn.  Part of what it means to be a leader is to be a learner. My Dad first taught me this, and he continues to teach me this.

So what does it mean to be a learning leader?  You could unpack this in a number of different ways.  For the sake of this post, I am going to share five observations which I see as helpful indicators of what a learning leader is. (This is not an exhaustive list, and I am sure if I were to create a list it would probably have hundreds of points, so please don’t treat this as an exhaustive list but as a starting place of observations).

1) A thirst to learn and stay current

If you are a leader, it is important to have a grasp of what is going on both within your purview but also outside of your immediate context.  This enables you to be able to integrate learning from other areas into your contexts, organizations, etc., and also to be able to translate your learning to others in different areas.  Learning is not a one directional but a multi-directional on-going process.  It takes intention or a thirst to learn, to spend the time learning or to integrate time for continued learning into one’s busy life and schedule.  A starting place simply could be to spend a half hour of your day perusing some of the news stories or latest posts from a host of news or thought leadership publications.  For some people reading is enough. For others, its also important to take time to write and think about what you have read.  If you are like me, this means allowing some space to reflect and perhaps even blog about what you are thinking about.  Putting your thoughts down on paper or in an electronic form can be helpful to continue to process, but also to engage in conversation and dialogue of mutual learning.  (I have found Twitter and blogging and reading others’ blogs to be very helpful for me in this regard.)

2) Willingly admit that you don’t know everything (and no one does)

Let’s be honest, I don’t know everything and neither do you.  To be fair, no one knows everything.  As my Dad repeatedly taught me, “There will always be someone smarter and more talented than you.  Just don’t let their be a harder worker and more motivated person to do well as you.”  There takes a certain humility and honesty to admit that you don’t know everything, and to admit that you never well. That’s part of being a leader though, and its an important part to be able to overcome or reign in potential hubris. It also points to the need for collaboration, partnership, and mutual and collective learning and leadership.

3) Build your team, mentors, and connections

In that same vein, to overcome the lack of knowing everything, even with technology and information at our fingertips, it is essential to build a team you can trust with people who think and work differently than yourself.  Diversity of perspective and experience are invaluable for a team to be able to do as well, and to be as effective as possible. In the same way, finding mentors in different areas with different perspectives and experiences are equally invaluable.  From these, building connections in different areas, sectors and with different perspectives helps round you out as a leader and provide you with invaluable sources of learning that although they might challenge your perspective, will in the process make you see things in ways you might never have imagined.  Trust me, you will be richer in life for this, and most likely, much more wise.  (I am currently discovering how appreciative inquiry really points to all of this, and its fascinating.)

4) Embrace questions

It’s probably no surprise that I add a piece about questions.  Whether its an openness to continually ask “Why do you do what you do,” or to live and breathe with Peter Drucker’s 5 Questions, a learning leader loves questions. They love to ask the questions and facilitate conversation about them to wonder and imagine. But they also embrace being asked the questions because it allows them to reflect, re-imagine, and when necessary change in order to be better aligned or at least closer to their overall mission, vision, and values. If you are not asking and thinking about the questions, you are already behind the person in some other place who is. At the heart of learning is the act of asking a question.

5) Continue to learn how to learn

Perhaps the most important thing one learns when they attend school is simply “how to learn.”  You can never be taught all of the historical facts, all of the mathematical or scientific rules, or the philosophical or theological viewpoints.  But you can be taught how to continue how to learn.  Do you learn by reading quietly? By reading aloud? Do you learn by writing?  By engaging in conversation?  Everyone has different learning styles, and different times of the day actually when one might do some of these things better than others. That is something important to learn about yourself and to shape your schedule as much as you can to build around these strengths of yours.  Likewise, its important to stay current with potential tools (like in my life time, the move from the early PC to the laptop to the tablet to the smallest of mobile devices with all of these resources at your fingertips).  As new technology, ways of doing things, and other innovations are developed and discovered, its important to be able to continue to learn how to use these to most effectively continue to learn and to be able to use these tools to enhance your own learning.

What do you think?  Would you call yourself a learning leader?  Why or why not?  What other ideas do you have about what it means to be a learning leader?

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