The Leader That Learns

Got homework?

In his book, “The Great Divide,” Studs Terkel talked about growing up in a Chicago public housing project. He said, “I was the youngest of ten children. My father died when I was in the 7th grade. My mother raised us herself. She set an example for me.”

As Terkel noted, his mother worked as an assembly line worker and as a cleaning lady. She would always say, “This is expected of you. You work. Don’t be the public aid family. Don’t be the public housing family. Don’t be what people expect you to be. Be more than that.” She preached continual learning to achieve excellence.

Terkel went on to say, “If you came home without homework, she would ask, ‘You have homework?’ If you said, ‘No,’ she’d ask, ‘You know everything?’ You’d say, ‘No.’ She’d say, ‘Well, you have homework now!”

Mama was right. The research makes it clear that the most successful people and the best leaders are always in the learning mode. They know school is never out.

By contrast, failed leaders rest on their laurels. They forget to listen, and they stop learning. They rely on the hard lessons they’ve learned from their past experiences and insist nothing has changed since they learned those lessons.

Construction consultant Lou Briganti says, “That very strength can become their most painful Achilles’ heel. What drives companies forward is not so much what leaders have learned from past experience as what their employees and customers think, believe, and act upon TODAY.”

What about you? Whether you’re leading a company, a department, a team, a family, or even your own life, you’re a leader of some sort. And to be an effective leader, you’ve got to be in the constant pursuit of knowledge. Do you realize that? I hope so. The fact is… you’ve always GOT HOMEWORK.

Or have you stopped learning? Have you stopped attending seminars, reading books and listening to educational CD’s? Do you make excuses for your failure to learn? Do you tell people you don’t have the time to attend seminars? Do you feel like you don’t have the money to purchase books and motivational CDs? And do you think you already know what you need to know?

Then Honeywell chairman Larry Bossidy has a word of advice for you: GET REAL. He says high performing leaders are always characterized by one fact — “They remove the rose-colored glasses and dump the excuses.”

If you want to be a good leader — or even a great leader — then you must do three things.

=> 1. You must have a thirst for learning.

Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence makes that clear. He found that the leaders of high-performing organizations had a deep internal desire to be excellent at whatever they were doing. In fact their drive for learning and performance improvement was much stronger than their motivation for more money or more recognition.

In his book “The New Language of Organizing And Its Implications For Leaders,” Charles Handy says, “Great leaders find time to read, to meet people beyond their own circle, to go to the theater or see films, to walk in other worlds.” They’re learning, learning, learning. And I would humbly suggest… that if great leaders need to do that… so do you and I.

In addition to learning in general, to be an effective leader,

=> 2. You must learn about the people in your world.

You should never get to the point of presuming you know it all. Charles Handy went on to say that effective leaders also have “a humble doubt, the humility to accept that one can be wrong on occasion, that others also have ideas, that listening is as important as talking.”

Effective leaders are quite aware of the fact that other people at work and at home may see things quite differently than they do. And as leaders, they want to learn how those people see things and what those people feel.

As head of the Disney companies, Michael Eisner demonstrated that. He instituted a once-a-month field trip for his executives where they had to go out and work alongside other Disney employees. So you might see a Vice President, for example, working in the laundry and folding towels all day, next to a housekeeping employee. It was a great way to learn about and learn from the Disney staff — as well as build rapport and empathy.

Finally, with so much to learn in general, with so much to learn about the people in your world, where do you start? What should be your initial focus?

=> 3. You must learn your team member’s EXPERIENCES and EXPECTATIONS.

Everyone in your organization comes to work with a set of experiences… a set of unique talents, gifts, and lessons. You must learn what they are so you can make appropriate use of them.

In terms of EXPERIENCES, Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, authors of “The Accidental Leader,” outline several things you need to learn.

* Learn how long each team member has been with the organization. You can get an historical perspective from the old-timers, and you can get a fresh perspective from the newer members of your team.

* Learn who’s had experience with teamwork. Find out who’s been a part of an effective, collaborative team. It may tell you how to organize future tasks.

* Learn the most fulfilling work experience each team member has ever had. Their answers will tell you what you need to do to create a more positive work environment.

Beyond experience, each of your team members comes to you with a set of EXPECTATIONS. Do you know what they are? Or are you merely guessing? If you don’t know, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle as a leader. You need to…

* Learn what your team members want. What motivates them? Money, advancement, challenge? They’re all legitimate expectations, but you’ve got to know what they are if you ever hope to satisfy them.

* Learn their mission expectations. Do they understand the team’s mission? Do they have any doubts or reservations? You can’t presume they automatically “get” it and are on board.

* Learn your team member’s expectations of a leader. You may not be able to ask the question outright, but be on the lookout for clues. It will give you some idea as to what works and doesn’t work when it comes to leading your people.

So you want to be a better leader? Then you know the answer to the question, “Got homework?” The answer is “Yes. You’ve got to be learning all the time.”

Action:  What is your plan for your own continuing education? It’s not entirely up to your company to educate you. So what are you going to do about it?