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Why the Best Leaders are Born Learners

By Brad Wayland, Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton.

September 24 2019 - There's a big difference between a good leader and a great one - and it might not be what you think. The best leaders aren't the most infallible or capable - they're the men and women who seek always to improve.

What makes a good leader? Depending on who you ask, you might receive different answers.

Some people might say it's charisma. The ability to motivate. To inspire through sheer force of personality, and in so doing push the people around you to new heights.

Others might say it's excellence. The ability to lead by example and set the standard for everyone around you. To achieve leadership solely based on your own talents and capabilities.

Still, others might bring up empathy. Understanding the people you manage. Knowing how they think, what they care about, and who they are, and using that knowledge to bring out the best in them.

Actually, the best leaders possess all of the traits described above. They're charismatic, empathetic, capable, focused, and organized. But perhaps more importantly, they're men and women who constantly pursue excellence.

They realize that there's always some new height to aim for, always some hidden insight or new gem of knowledge they can put to use in their career. They understand that, even as capable and skilled as they are, there's always someone better. And even if there isn't, they know that one day there will be.

"Great leaders are lifelong learners," reads a piece in CEO Experience, a leadership coaching agency. "They are teachable, and they remain both curious and humble. Learning leaders accept that they have not learned enough, achieved enough, or accomplished enough. They get up every day with a mindset that they will discover something new."

It isn't just a matter of self-improvement, either. Being a lifelong learner is also important to stay on top of industry trends. We live in an era where even five years can see the development of startling new innovations.

A business whose leadership is unaware of these innovations will be unable to adapt.

That's why the best leaders have a constant thirst for new information, new skills, and new talents. They're passionate about learning. Even if you don't currently share that trait, it's something that can be developed.

First, start teaching yourself to see new learning opportunities beyond traditional stuff like podcasts, white papers, and classes. These are all valuable sources of knowledge, but they shouldn't be your only resource. In addition, you should:

  • Learn to ask questions. Acknowledge that everyone you meet could teach you more about your industry, or about the wider world. And know that there are no stupid questions - if there's something you want to be answered, ask.
  • Connect with people across mediums like online communities and industry events. Find colleagues to bounce ideas off of and mentors who can help you learn more.
  • Learn from mistakes - both your own and other people's. The only real difference between someone who's successful and someone who isn't is that the successful person has learned to treat their failures as learning experiences.

In addition to seeking new learning avenues, you'll also want to practice something the director of executive coaching and leadership at Google refers to as "Learning Agility." Essentially, this refers to the ability to not only learn fast but to use things you've learned in the past to make connections between old experiences and new. More importantly, it's the ability to let go of perspectives and beliefs that are no longer relevant.

To develop learning agility, Peterson recommends:

  • Open yourself to new experiences. Never be afraid to learn, and respond to events and information that challenge your perspective with interest rather than hostility.
  • Constantly ask the people around you for feedback. Think about their own unique perspectives, and ask them what they think based on that.
  • Experiment. Don't be afraid to try new things, or consider new approaches to a problem.
  • Consider that there might be connections between specializations and fields which at first appear completely disconnected. Choose something you know you're an expert in but that's unrelated to your work, and consider how you might apply that expertise elsewhere.
  • Reflect. Take the time to step back and meditate on your experiences. Every time you overcome a challenge - or fail to - ask yourself what you learned. By training yourself to be more mindful and reflective, you may notice things that you might otherwise ignore.

The best leaders share a lot of qualities in common with one another. They're highly competent and well-informed. They're charismatic, with a deep understanding of what it takes to motivate and inspire the people around them.

But beyond that, they're all learners. They're dedicated to constantly trying to reach new heights of knowledge, expertise, and skill. To staying abreast of emerging industry trends, that their business might more effectively and efficiently adapt.

Because at the end of the day, a leader's job is to inspire people to be better than they think they are. The best leaders understand that this applies to themselves as much as the people around them. You can't expect your employees to strive for excellence and give their best if you're not willing to do the same.



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