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Good Leaders are Good Learners

Although organizations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programs struggle to implement what they’ve learned. It’s not because the programs are bad, but because leadership is best learned from experience.
Still, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Like most of us, leaders often go through their experiences somewhat mindlessly, accomplishing tasks but learning little about themselves and their impact.

Our research on leadership development shows that leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers. In particular, we found that leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the following three phases of the experiential learning cycle.

First, leaders set challenging learning goals. For some leaders, the goal might be to become more persuasive or to be more approachable. With a goal in mind, leaders can identify opportunities to make progress toward it. These could include a new project, an international assignment or simply striving to approach routine encounters in a fundamentally different way.

Next, leaders find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. A leader interested in increasing their persuasiveness, for example, might experiment with speaking first or last in a critical meeting.

Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candidly reflecting on what went well, what did not go so well and what might work better in future is essential.

Such leaders will view setbacks as evidence that they have not yet developed the required capabilities, rather than that they are just not cut out for the task at hand. They will also avoid the trap of constantly seeking out places and tasks to highlight their strengths, as well as feedback that affirms their innate talents and self-esteem. Simply asking oneself, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to wholeheartedly focus on leadership development.

How can organizations help leaders enter and remain in learning mode? Organizations should get rising leaders to focus more on improving their performance progressively, rather than constantly benchmarking themselves against others. They should also construe mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than indicators of leadership inadequacy. In hiring and promotion, organizational leaders might want to give priority to those most likely to grow and develop in a role. Finally, they might conduct an audit of fixed mindset cues in their organization and tweak them to focus more on developing than diagnosing leadership capabilities.

By supporting leaders being in learning mode, organizations can develop the capabilities that leaders need to anticipate, respond to and continually learn from the stream of emerging challenges to organizational prosperity.

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