On Becoming a Learning Leader

450,000,000. That’s the number of hits the term “leadership” brought up in an online search, perhaps some may be thinking that either there are more than enough words written on leadership or that everything has been said that can be said.

In actuality, excellent leadership is not only scarce but extremely difficult to achieve; thus, there is no question that we have much to glean from revisiting past knowledge and continually recommitting ourselves to being lifetime Learning Leaders.

One of the common debates in our field is the difference between management and leadership. Seth Godin describes the differences:

“Managers work to get their employees to do what they did yesterday, but a little faster and a little cheaper. Leaders, on the other hand, know where they’d like to go, but understand that they can’t get there without their tribe, without giving those they lead the tools to make something happen. Managers want authority. Leaders take responsibility….”

This definition does a bit of a disservice to some of our best managers, but the generalization is useful and raises many questions. How do leaders determine where they’d like to go? Where do they learn that they can’t do it alone but need their “tribe”? Where do leaders figure out which tools the tribe/team needs? And, where are leaders taught how to take responsibility and hold others accountable? Some of those things are learned from graduate school and/or apprenticing under a good leader. Others are learned on the job. The challenge with learning on the job is that a hectic environment (and/or lack of self-awareness) often does not allow the learning leader time for critical self-reflection: “How do my personality traits and behaviors impact my leadership style and effectiveness?”

Carlos is a perfect example. Articulate and bright, Carlos quickly moved through the ranks from direct service to management and, following graduate school, to COO. Carlos was good at his job but got a negative reputation from yelling at others when criticized. Carlos’ CEO received many complaints; however, he was afraid to upset and potentially lose Carlos.  Therefore, he neglected to give Carlos direct feedback about how his behavior was interfering with his effectiveness. When the CEO abruptly took another job and Carlos was promoted to CEO, it wasn’t long before the Board started getting anonymous complaints about Carlos’ temper. The Board President insisted on a “360” multi-rater review and the results shocked and devastated Carlos. Fortunately, he was totally committed to making the necessary changes, not only to keep his job, but to excel. After a year of working on the relevant issues, using coaching, self-monitoring and other tools, Carlos received dramatically higher marks on a repeat 360 from staff and Board alike.

This situation was totally avoidable. Had Carlos received the feedback and experienced the modeling of leadership basics from his CEO, he would have had ample opportunity to increase his self-awareness and adjust problem behaviors—and he would have either earned the promotion to COO and CEO or not have been selected in the first place.

In my experience, there are 7 traits that Learning Leaders demonstrate.

Learning Leaders:

  1. Create an environment that is safe for people to build trust, express their opinions, disagree and debate in order to reach the best decisions.
  2. Are consistently open to listening to feedback and differences of opinion, both about the organization and their own behavior. They are NEVER defensive or disrespectful.
  3. Seek ongoing feedback, because they are clear that they cannot be strategic without knowing the impact they have on others.
  4. Give and expect “fearless feedback”—immediate and respectful, but in direct response to employees, both when they do the right thing and when their actions are inconsistent with organizational policies or values.
  5. Practice “Intentional Leadership.” Every action is deliberate and crafted towards achieving the mission.
  6. Do not lose their temper in public.  “Lost” tempers demonstrate a loss of control and disrespect of others. When the leader loses it, it gives permission for others to do the same.
  7. Own their actions and those of the organization. Learning Leaders blame no one. Ever.

Once a leader is able to consistently practice and model these seven principles, then he/she can and must continue to expect them of all employees. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Do you follow all of these? If not, which ones need attention? Which one is the most difficult to practice? Are you a Learning Leader?