(We're delighted to have this guest article from a couple of leading thinkers.)
When discussing innovation and risk-taking in our leadership development programs we regularly ask participants, ”How many of you have ever learned a new game or a new sport?” Invariably every hand in the room goes up. We then ask, “And how many of you got it perfect the first day you played it?” People chuckle. No hands go up. Who ever gets it right the first time?
There was this one time, however, when Urban E. Hilger, Jr. raised his hand and said that on the very first day he went skiing he got it perfect. Naturally we were curious and asked Urban to tell us about the experience. Here’s what he said.
It was the first day of skiing classes. I skied all day long, and I didn’t fall down once. I was so elated; I felt so good. So I skied up to the instructor, and I told him of my great day. You know what the ski instructor said? He told me, “Personally, Urban, I think you had a lousy day.” I was stunned. “What do you mean lousy day? I thought the objective was to stand up on these boards, not fall down.” The ski instructor looked me straight in the eyes and replied, “Urban, if you’re not falling, you’re not learning.”
Urban’s ski instructor understood that if you can stand up on your skis all day long the first time out, you’re only doing what you already know how to do, not pushing yourself to try anything new and difficult. By definition learning is about something you don’t know. Those who do what they already know how to do never learn anything new. Promoting learning requires building in a tolerance for error and a framework for forgiveness. Learning and innovation go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. We’ve also discovered that the same thing is true for leadership.
In a series of research studies we conducted — along with Lillas Brown of the University of Saskatchewan — we found that leaders can be differentiated by the range and depth of the learning tactics they employ when facing a new or unfamiliar experience. We measured managers on four different approaches to learning — taking action, feeling, thinking, and accessing others — and we discovered that managers who were more engaged rather than less engaged in each of these learning tactics were also more effective at leading. The more they engaged in learning the better they did at leading. We discovered, in other words, that we could predict that someone would be a more effective leader based on the extent to which they engaged in learning!
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. It just makes sense that those people who push themselves to learn will do better than those who only dabble in it. Attending one three-day workshop, reading one best-selling book, reflecting only on one incident, or participating in one simulation doesn’t produce great leaders. It doesn’t produce great innovators either. What was somewhat surprising to us, however, was that no one style of learning was more effective than any other at being a more effective leader. Learning to lead seems to be independent of any particular learning style. It doesn’t matter how you learn. What matters is that you do more of whatever learning tactic works best for you. Becoming a better leader is clearly linked to becoming a better learner.
These findings also raise an extremely interesting and mostly unexplored question: Which comes first, learning or leading? Whenever we pursue this question with our clients their hunches are the same as ours. Learning comes first, they say. When people are predisposed to be curious and want to learn something new, they are much more likely to get better at it than those who don’t become fully engaged. When it comes to getting great at leading, or anything for that matter, the axiom is not simply “Just do it.” It’s “Just do more of it!”
Learning is the master skill. When we fully engage in learning — when we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into experimenting, reflecting, reading, or getting coaching – we’re going to experience the thrill of improvement and the taste of success. Less is not more when it comes to learning. More is more. And a word of caution to executives with the red pencils. In these challenging times when we’re faced with the need to innovate, don’t cut the training budget!
Question of the Week: Let's take this great question about learning and leading and see what your experience is. How do you see your leaders learning? What brief example of outstanding learning leading to great leadership? Please respond in the comments section below.