Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Although organizations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programs struggle to implement what they’ve learned – It’s not because the programs are bad but because leadership is best learned from experience.

Research on leadership development shows that, leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers. Building further on Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue’s mindful engagement experiential learning cycle, researchers found that leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the following three phases of the experiential learning cycle.

First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of “I need to learn how to…” With a goal in mind, leaders can identify opportunities and make progress toward it

Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. Creating and capitalizing on learning opportunities can be bolstered by having a coach or peer provide feedback and act as a sounding board.

Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candidly reflecting on what went well, what did not go so well, and what might work better in future are essential thoughts and often neglected initiatives for learning from experience to discern what to focus on learning next. Understanding these principles is important for organizations not just because it means that leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive, but also because it means that leadership skills can be systematically learned and practiced.

How can leaders enter learning mode? Leaders can construe setbacks as meaning that they have not yet developed the required capabilities, rather than them being just not cut out for the task at hand. They can also avoid the trap of constantly seeking out places and tasks to highlight their strengths, as well as mindfully avoid feedback that affirms their innate talents and self-esteem. Simply asking themselves, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to wholeheartedly focus, or refocus, on their leadership development, as well as leadership performance, and thereby truly learn from their experiences. 

How can organizations help leaders enter and remain in learning mode? Organizational leaders can help ‘rising leaders’ focus on being progressively better than they were in the past, rather than constantly benchmarking themselves against others. They can help model mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than indicators of leadership inadequacy. In hiring and promoting, organizational leaders may give priority to those most likely to grow and develop in a role. Finally, they may conduct an audit of fixed mindset cues in their organization — such as the use of psychometric testing to select the most “innately qualified” high-potential leaders; forced ranking performance appraisals; and winner-take-all reward systems — and tweak them to focus more on developing than diagnosing leadership capabilities.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes that by supporting leaders being in learning mode, organizations can develop the capabilities that leaders need: to anticipate, respond to, and continually learn from the stream of emerging challenges in order to achieve organizational prosperity.

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