In Leadership, the Ability to Learn Trumps All Other Skills

For the fourth year I am teaching a course on Leadership and Career, a full semester course for MBA students. In developing this course the first question is where to start? What is the most important skill? Which ability do all the others rest on?

The Globe Study of worldwide leaders would say integrity. Goleman and many others would say emotional intelligence. Many MBA programs concentrate on business and quantitative skills. The Center for Creative Leadership would say that the first task of a leader is to set direction which implies being strategic. All are critical to success. Is there a foundational skill?

I would argue for the ability to learn. In this ever evolving world, without continuous learning it is not possible to master any of the other skills. Whether you move into leadership with excellent emotional intelligence – or the EQ of a 5 year old – you will need to learn from your experiences in order to hone those skills. Hopefully, you entered the leadership arena with an excellent internal moral compass and unparalleled integrity. You will still be tested. There will be a situation with competing goods and you will need to learn from that situation how to sort out the next. The need for continuous learning is not just for those who are deficient in the skill, they are also for those who have mastered it. There will be new challenges in the future.

Our failure as leaders, is that we often believe once we’ve gotten through college, or a master’s degree or our first few trials at work; that we are ‘done’. Having been tested and won, we believe we can rest on past excellence to guide us. We stop focusing on additional learning. Oh, additional learning is fine for others not necessarily for ourselves. Or, maybe we believe it is necessary – it is just that our actions don’t support our words. These excuses add up to what Carol Dweck would call the fixed mindset.

The point we are often missing is that we will learn, in spite of ourselves. It just won’t be clear until the next challenge if we have focused on the learning that will help. The trick is finding ways to make learning conscious. To find the time to pull back from experience and reflect on what we learned. To do that, we can use books or courses. If you are very lucky you will have a coach or mentor, to help you find a framework for learning that you can apply to the next situation. This assumes Dweck’s other concept – that of the growth mindset.

We are composed of two separate instincts, one to seek stasis –  being a couch potato is fun sometimes (in fact it is an easy place to sink into – if you will forgive the pun). Our other instinct is for challenge. Reflecting on where we are being challenged and challenging others is one way to consciously choose experiences that will help us learn. Being conscious about learning, for me, is the foundational skill for leadership and that is why we focus on it first.

Photo credit:  Zsuzsanna Kilian