"The most powerful learning is that which comes through experience. While we cannot experience all that is to be learned firsthand, we can learn through the experience of others. "
The Learning Network and its weekends brought senior thought leaders in management and organizational development together on a regular basis, allowing them to compare notes on how they taught others. At one such weekend, during a brainstorming session, the topic of how they learned came up. This idea so fascinated them that Learn like a Leader (edited by Marshal Goldsmith, Beverly Kaye, and Ken Shelton, three of their members) was the result.
Before this project was over, they interviewed over a hundred such senior thought leaders and organized the book into eight themes, including lessons on leadership, crossroads and choices, developing self-knowledge, pain as a great teacher, and many more. And if you read business and management books like I do, you will recognize many of the names interviewed and will appreciate reading their personal stories on learning.
The Big Idea
Learning as the Objective
"How would your day be different if you organized your time, energy, and resources primarily around the objective of learning, instead of around performance?"
If you’ve read anything by Jim Collins, you know that he has spent much of his career researching what makes companies great and what keeps them that way, so having him focus on learning rather than performance made an impact. He tells of being interviewed for a documentary on Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart and a favorite of his, and how he ended the interview by asking questions. The interviewer was stunned and told him “I interview professors and experts all the time, but I’ve never had one turn the tables and begin asking me questions. At first I was taken aback—surprised really—but it’s refreshing to see that experts can still learn.”
And that is the gist of this book: never stop learning. Regardless of who you are or where in your life or profession you’ve gotten to, there is always more to learn. Depending on your field, you may be forced to do so to stay current (as my husband, a programmer, has to) but even if it’s not something externally required, take it upon yourself to do so. How else can you keep yourself motivated and fresh? And if you’re not sure what else there is to learn, try teaching someone. Several of the experts throughout the book repeated how they often learned more than those they taught, and as a former teacher, I agree. You never know what your students will ask or what their fresh perspective will bring to the lesson, but it will definitely force you to revisit what you thought you knew.
Choose to Enjoy the Learning
"Some people do the same jobs as everybody else but have an unusual sense of mission; they enjoy it, and they have the energy to achieve at high levels."
Charles Garfield focuses his time and writings on peak performance. He explains how he never gave a toll booth collector a second thought until the day he noticed one dancing to music blasting from his booth. Due to an impatient driver behind him, Charles didn’t have the chance to ask the toll booth clerk any questions that day, but he never forgot him. Months later he was fortunate enough to come across him again and even had lunch with him. What the man told him made a great impact.
To this toll booth collector, all his coworkers chose to enter their “vertical coffins” daily and die for eight hours. He chose not to. His ultimate goal was to become a dancer, so he took the opportunity to hone his craft while his employer funded this “education.” Did he still do his job? Yes. And did he do it well? Definitely. But instead of just going through the motions, he figured out how to make the most of the time on the job. “I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring,” he told Charles. “I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, the Berkeley Hills; half the Western world vacations here, and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing.”
Many of us have been in jobs that are not a perfect fit. Either we don’t enjoy the culture, our bosses, or what we do on a daily basis. I know I’ve been in similar situations and although I try to make the most of it, at some point I allow myself to get so discouraged and depressed—and begin to go through the motions—that to all intents and purposes, I too enter a “coffin” for eight hours a day. How would those years and jobs have been better, and what could I have achieved if I could have mentally reframed these jobs as enjoyable learning experiences?
Choose to Choose the Learning
"Big choices are often so difficult that they become painful, but of course we all know that not to decide is a decision in itself."
There is opportunity to learn every day and every moment. Whether you’re standing in line at a grocery, waiting for the subway, or in a meeting that never ends. Look around yourself. What can you learn from observing others and/or what can you be doing with your time to further improve yourself? What can you learn from your pain or mistake? If you choose to learn, then nothing is ever a waste or a lost opportunity.
Another of the leaders interviewed mentioned Tai Chi teaching him to take a step backwards before lunging forward. This step backwards is done while spreading one’s hands, to symbolize broadening one’s vision and perspective. So take a step back from your daily routine and revisit it from this learning perspective. Choose to learn and choose to never stop learning.
Learn like a Leader lived up to its title and objective. I have read many of these greats (and will be reading many others) and was inspired by how continued learning was fundamental to them becoming who they are. Also inspiring was how many of them did not start out in the field that has made them great and how they had to learn to find their “callings” and areas of greatest contribution, which gives me hope. And since I’ve only touched on a handful of their lessons, the book can offer you many more.
So if you do aspire to keep learning, what mode do you find most useful and why? And have you had an “aha” moment that’s made you a lifelong learner?