Ten Failures of a Leader: I Know What I Need to Know (#10)

Get over the idea that only children should spend their time in study.  Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.

Henry L. Doherty

Lifelong learning is a key to success in every modern vocation.  Nothing stays the same and the best skills of today almost become antiquated by tomorrow. Moreover, the importance of learning is being recognized as an important part of having a fulfilling and happy life.  N. Nordstrom in his 2008, Top 10 Benefits of Lifelong Learning, published on www.SelfGrowth.com details ten reasons why lifelong learning improves individuals and organizations:

  1. Lifelong learning helps fully develop natural abilities.
  2. Lifelong learning opens the mind.
  3. Lifelong learning creates a curious, hungry mind.
  4. Lifelong learning increases our wisdom.
  5. Lifelong learning makes the world a better place.
  6. Lifelong learning helps us to adapt to change.
  7. Lifelong learning helps us find meaning in our lives.
  8. Lifelong learning keeps us involved as active contributors to society.
  9. Lifelong learning helps us make new friends and establish valuable relationships.
  10. Lifelong learning leads to an enriching life of self-fulfillment.

Just in this simple list, there are a number of things that every organization seeks to build in its employees: develop natural abilities, increases innovation, accepts change, more satisfaction with life, and establishes new relationships and contacts.

Learning can take many forms, some formal as well as informal.  For most adults, their jobs as well as various media outlets serve as the principal means of learning.  The most common methods of learning include formal training, informal (on-the-job) training, interaction with colleagues, and direct experience.   Research has shown that adults learn the most through direct experience coupled with real problem solving more than any other method.  Consequently, a challenging environment with multiple opportunities for growth is not just necessary, but critical if an organization wants to improve over time.

As a leader, it is critical to engage in continuous learning in a formal and informal sense.  Not only can we learn from new ideas or innovations that are available to us from a variety of sources, but the actual experience of leading creates numerous new opportunities to self evaluate, measure the value of our style and approach vis-à-vis outcomes, and improve on our how we deal with the near limitless scenarios in the modern workplace.  Leadership more than most capabilities does not reach a plateau that diminishes our need to seek improvement since the environment constantly changes and few challenges are exactly the same.

A leader must be adaptive to the internal and external environment, team capabilities and disposition, and nature of desired outcomes.  When we encounter situations we have not seen before, we must develop a plan that will allow the available resources to be utilized efficiently and effectively even if we have not encountered that specific set of circumstances before.  When a leader fails to be responsive to the situation a variety of negatives outcomes can occur: failure of reach the organizational or unit goal(s), less than optimal allocation and utilization of resources, loss of consumer confidence, loss of business or support, lower employee morale, decreased productivity, and higher turnover.

Figure 1: Outcomes of Leadership Failure

Figure 1: Outcomes to Leadership Failure

Figure 1 illustrates how often negative outcomes occur when a leader fails to adapt in a small sample of 500 leaders. Not surprisingly, each of the negative outcomes accompanies almost every failure.  When this same group of leaders were asked what is the most important thing could have been done to increase the chance of success, the number one answer was more learning and experience (70 percent of the respondents)  The second and third most occurring responses were providing more resources and greater executive support, but combined these only totaled 20 percent.  Given the cost of not being prepared, why do some leaders not have an interest in committing to learning?

Over the years I have encountered three primary explanations from leaders:

  • What else could I learn
  • Learning is not my strong suit
  • I just need to answer this one question

What else could I learn

I worked with a group of leaders in a half day workshop a year ago.  The organization was feeling the pressure of the recession and wanted to change the perspective of their leaders to be more open and innovative to the slowdown.  As the group came in for the morning session, there was some grumbling about having to attend the session.  After basic introductions, a senior manager raised his hand and asked “why do we have to do this?”  As I described the situation in the organization and how current practices were not accomplishing the desired goals, he paused, looked around the room, and then responded “something like this would be good for junior staff, but there is really not a lot that leaders like themselves still need to know.”  This is a very common myth that we all can develop as leaders: if I am smart enough to have gotten to this level, then I must know most of what I need to know.   We rarely accept this from our direct reports, why would we from ourselves?

Learning is not my strong suit

How many times have you asked an employee to learn something new and the response was “I really did not do well in school,” “I am not a book or classroom person,” or “I don’t learn things like other people.”   It is accepted now that we all learn differently and the method and approach needs to be matched to the one trying to learn.  However, any 21st century employee that feels that learning is not his or her strong suit is in for a rough career.  Given that the median number of years that a person stays in a job is 4.1 years (CPS 2008), an average person will have to have seven to ten jobs over the course of their working life.  The Wall Street Journal recently summarized the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analysis on the average number of jobs and emphasized the continuing trend for job turnover since 1990.   (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704206804575468162805877990.html/)

Similarly, researchers typically predict that an average worker will have between three and five careers that require gaining new skills and abilities.  There is no exact estimate on the actual number since career change is neither universally defined nor collected.  However, it is generally accepted that a person entering the workforce will hold more than one career and learning will be a necessity for success in every kind of job, especially those involving leadership.

I just need to answer this one question

When we are in the middle of a challenging situation, we want an answer and we need it quick. A leader in a crisis does not want to read a book or manual, attend a class, or even do in-depth research, he or she wants to find the answer and get back to work.  Although I am blessed with very bright kids, more than once I have been handed a rather lengthy book and asked can you find the exact page of the answer I need and show it to me.    Part of the learning process is the actual process and not just the answer.  We gain so much more by taking the journey then simply finding the answer.  As mentioned before, the greatest gains in adult learning occur as part of experience and problem solving.

Learning is one of the first areas cut and the last to be restored during bad economic times or even when competing priorities are present.  Moreover, it is easy for an organization to take the approach of just muddling through and hoping everything works out.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.
~John Fitzgerald Kennedy

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