Saturday, June 1, 2013

Learning and Leading

For many leaders, the commitment to learning – both their own and that of their workers – is a given.  We all recognize the value of learning, after all, embracing different experiences and perspectives and encouraging opportunities for our teams or organizations to learn more about our work or ourselves so we can perform more effectively.  Yet in an age of ongoing change and disruption, how do we learn most effectively?  Beyond our ready willingness, what do we focus on in order to become better creative leaders?

We may cite various familiar examples to orient our own approaches to learning.  Steve Jobs, for instance, relied on a constant curiosity that provided learning and, in turn, the capacity to connect disparate elements, like applying the calligraphy he learned in college to computer fonts used first in Apple computers.  Creativity is “connecting things,” he memorably said, and to do so requires learning them in the first place.  

Likewise, as digital technologies have transformed businesses and relationships, it seems fairly straightforward that learning how to navigate them requires the regular refreshing of technical skills and social practices.  To empower us all to use these technological tools and platforms more effectively, we might highlight the dramatic re-working of various formal professional training and educational practices, from internal organizational training to external schooling.  Underpinning this re-training for others, leaders must themselves learn about how training should be designed and customized to maximize the learning of others.

Reflecting on the complexity of learning for leaders – and the necessity of their learning to learn better – yields several other helpful approaches.

  • Learning (to Fail) Quickly

No one running a business today can afford to encourage his or her workers simply to fail.  Leaders must balance the benefit of learning with the sometimes very real costs of inevitable failures.  Too often, failing fast or often is parroted as a goal of creative projects or organizations without a fuller recognition of how learning needs to be built essentially into that process.  We ritually talk about the value of “learning to fail quickly,” in other words, when describing how to nurture innovation and creativity.  More apt, perhaps, is the way creative industry consultant and coach Charles Day puts it: we should leave out the middle two words in order to emphasize the more fundamental priority of learning quickly.

  •       Adaptive Learning

Learning quickly requires sensitivity to the different kinds of failure that leaders and other creatives experience in business.  In other words, when focusing on failures, in particular, we need to adapt and learn differently from different situations.  While intuitively obvious, such a need for adaptability ultimately is about a general openness to learning regardless of specific situation.  For example, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson recently identified several different types of failure, such as those that are preventable in predictable scenarios or systems, deviations from system specs, and the unavoidable failures that arise in complex systems or scenarios.  Based on these types, leaders and organizations can better enable learning by (1) getting past blame, (2) establishing clear if varied reporting and communications systems processes, and (3) instituting consistent modes of analysis of failures, and (4) determining opportunities for experimentation.

  •      Learning Organizations

Edmondson’s approach to enabling learning across different types of failure extends an important, two-decades-old emphasis on learning across the organization as a key to creating competitive advantage.  In 1990, Peter M. Senge published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice ofthe Learning Organization, a groundbreaking call for thoroughgoing openness to learning at every level of organizations about operational improvements and efficiency.  For Senge, whose thinking was shaped partly by a fascination at the time with “Total Quality Management” and continuous process improvement, leaders were the designers, teachers, and finally stewards of learning.  As such, they need to be in service to the learning of others as well as the organization as a whole.  This service is powerful and far-reaching: learning across organizations is not so much about problem-solving as bridging the natural creative tension that exists between vision and current reality – and supporting leaders’ efforts to build creative cultures and collaboratively realizing organizational goals.

  •       Learning to be Introspective and Self-leading

Analyzing and learning from the complexities of their organizations is essential for creative leaders but it is not enough.  Equally necessary is introspection and making self-reflection an ongoing leadership practice.  This is often particularly challenging for those already successful at analytical or creative work: such high potentials are often unprepared leaders who must develop new capacities at the speed of business.  One powerful approach to connecting reflection to action is the authentic leadership thinking of Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and author of True North.  In this and other works, George calls upon leaders to identify their core beliefs and values, as discoverable in their own life stories, as guideposts to leading richer and more successful lives, both professional and personal. 

Continual and thoughtful learning may be a cliché in life but it needs to be a concrete and very real driver of the work of effective leaders.  In his classic, On Becoming a Leader, management guru Warren Bennis captures well how knowing the world and knowing the self serve as cornerstones to a foundation for successful leadership.  Distilling so much of others’ insights on learning for business leaders, he recommends three active, ongoing steps:
1. Look back at your childhood, adolescence and use your experiences to make things happen in the present;
2. Consciously seek the kinds of experiences that will improve and enlarge you; and
3. Take risks, knowing that failure is vital and inevitable.

Valuable advice for creative leaders to embrace as a basis for better learning – and leading.

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