Many of the leaders I work with these days are in a bit of a paradoxical dilemma. They have a significant role for which they have been deemed highly competent, and yet it’s like riding a bucking bronco. The world is changing, the role becoming more complex, and leading in the role becomes more difficult by the day. It’s as if their jobs are moving right out from under them. If they don’t keep learning, and learning at the speed of light, they find themselves suddenly swallowed by a role they once could do with one hand tied behind their back.
In these circumstances, what is a good leader to do? One thing is clear. They can’t spend all their time in off-site training programs. In most cases, there aren’t programs for them to attend anyway. They also cannot afford to stay as they are. They must be in a constant state of change and transformation, while at the same time, operating from their core competency. Yes, it’s a dilemma.
What is the key to learning on the fly? I’ve found three ways out of the dilemma:
1) Put self-awareness ahead of self delusion, particularly about strengths and weaknesses. You don’t and cannot know everything. A clear-eyed view of your personal gaps is essential. While a leader needs to exude confidence, it can be deadly to be confident when you should have been curious.
2) Value curiosity over knowing, especially in the elusive information that tends to get “hidden in the weeds.” The higher in the hierarchy the leader, the harder it is to get a true picture of what is really happening. Learn to ask open-ended questions that yield answers you hate. Dig into what the odd balls and noisemakers in the organization are really saying. Find the truth in the “yuckiness” of complaint. Build solid feedback loops through processes, questions and curiosity. Be willing to be wrong.
3) Place hunger to be better over ego. None of these hints matter if you don’t want it. Becoming better means making mistakes, living in discomfort, admitting you don’t know everything. In other words, you gotta keep that ego in check.
I know this last one first hand. In one of my early leadership roles, I developed a feedback loop with my team about my tendency to do whatever my bosses wanted me to do. It was becoming clear that my “suck up” strategy was having consequences, to the point of people asking “If you are going to do everything the boss says, why do we need you?” Ouch. So I asked for steady, real-time feedback where the team called me out when I fell into this old pattern. It was painful…and it saved my career at that point in time. Had I stayed with the old way, no doubt I would have been in the next round of layoffs. Instead, I swallowed my pride and inched toward thinking for myself and putting my point of view out there. (What it took to figure out what I really thought is a story for another day!) Inch by inch, baby step by baby step, the outcome over time was transformational.
What keeps us from learning? What fears about needing to know our jobs, (even as we don’t have all the answers) keep us stuck in place? What would happen if we decided to truly evaluate our patterns, warts and all? Why not be joyously curious? How can we tap into our hunger to be better? What if our fear of failure is the very thing that will make us fail?
Here is a baby step practice to start with. Ask one question this week that you don’t want to hear the answer to. Dig into it, assuming the other person has something to teach you. Then let me know how it goes –either in the comments or through our contact page. Here’s to your hunger to learn!