Lifelong learning for leaders
One of the hardest part of leadership is that you’ve never arrived — you’re never the complete package. Worse still, the skills required to be effective can feel counter-intuitive. Which is assuming that you know where your gaps are. I can say with some confidence that becoming a semi competent at management is something that takes place over the timescale of years. I’m not sure it’s possible to progress to true competence because the breadth of subjects is so great. All you have hope for is it to continue identifying and developing your leadership blind spots as time progresses. Luckily, there’s incredible writing on the subject out there waiting for you.
What this means is that learning is a skill you need to develop. It’s worth investing in this if you are to stand a chance at making a dent in the knowledge mountain and keep up with what’s happening in your job. A great starting place here is the free course Learning How to Learn. If you want to go a step further you can even learn to read more quickly.
But reading is not enough. Reading doesn’t get you anywhere if you don’t learn anything from it. To quote Schopenhauer from his essay “On Reading and Books”.
For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.
There are a number of stages we go through as we learn and grow:
- Ignorance. You don’t know about the topic. You may not even know we don’t know about the topic. This is where we start and spend most of our lives. If you took the sum total of human knowledge as an ocean then you have the ability to drink a cupful in your lifetime. We should be comfortable with being ignorant because it’s our natural condition. Ignorance is not a crime — wilful ignorance, on the other hand, may be. We can selectively address it should we so choose. To accelerate leaving this on a given topic get a mentor — they can guide you where your gaps are likely to be. It saves you time trying to trial and error your way out.
- You own the book. You saw something that looked interesting or someone recommended a book. Now it’s sat there on your bookshelf. Mocking you. Congratulations. Welcome to my world — I’m forever playing catch up to my reading list. Owning the book may look good when people come to visit but you need to invest the time in consuming and digesting the book.
- You’ve read the book. This is not as much help as you might think. Reading is a pleasant way to spend time. However, reading a book doesn’t mean it’s now a part of you. I’ve seen too many leaders repeat phrases from books and sound polished and professional. Until you realise they aren’t living the lessons from the book. Hypocrites inspire nobody.
- You’ve reflected on the book. What are the three key messages you’ve taken from reading the book? What resonated with you? How does the book compare with how you currently behave? The book has only brought you value if you can use it to identify some things to change. This is why you should re-read good books multiple times. You are never going to be able to comprehend the lessons from it in one sitting.
- You’re applying the lessons of the book. You’ve made changes based on what you read. You’re exploring how the new knowledge makes you more effective. This is the final step of making the knowledge your own and incorporating it into your personal corpus. It’s worth going back to steps 3 and 4 a few more times if the book really resonates with you. And you need to continue reflecting over time that you’re still applying the lessons. A word of warning here — there are few things as frustrating as a leader who reads a lot and then comes in every Monday morning to change everything based upon the most recent book they read.
- You are guiding other people through the lessons. Not only are you living the new knowledge but you’re helping other people discover and navigate their way through it. The final step is about whether you are able to teach other people what you just learned. The act of explaining someone else’s concepts is where you truly learn them.
Understanding where you are on this journey can help you work out how to grow. Step 5 may be a happy outcome for you when acquiring knowledge. Not everyone has the urge to teach. But, if you’re investing time in reading and not turning it into positive change then it’s not a good use of your time. Far too often I see people read, parrot and then continue exactly as they were. You’d be better off doing something you’re get value out of.
What should you read? Read things you disagree with — this teaches you to consider other perspectives. Read things which are hard going — this teaches you persistence. Read things which are enjoyable — this keeps you reading. Read things which make you stop and think — this inspires you. Whatever you read — understand that it’s not yours until you make it yours. Understand where you are on your journey and you stand a chance of getting real value out of what you read beyond a pleasant diversion.