Ask anyone to give you a list of skills that describe a highly effective leader and I’m guessing they’ll give you a pretty extensive list. (Go ahead, make a quick mental list right now.)
Since I’ve done this many times in groups I am accustomed to what I will hear or read. These lists typically include: Leaders must have vision, they must be compassionate, they must be good communicators, they must build relationships, they must work well in teams, they must be powerful persuaders”and many other similar sentiments. All are excellent observations.
Rarely though do I find someone listing the most basic, underlying skill of all.
Highly effective, remarkable leaders must be continuous, lifelong learners.
There are at least four reasons why I believe this is true: the complexity of leadership, the nature of change, the role of leaders to model for others and the overall source of leadership. Let me explain.
Leadership is a complex endeavor. Humans are complex, and a leader is dealing with more than just his or her own complexities. They are tasked with understanding the complexity of human behavior and interactions across many people. When we put it this way, the role can seem daunting. Something this complex won’t be mastered quickly. Remarkable leaders know that the mastery of these complexities is a lifelong journey with no defined endpoint. The result? The need and desire to be in a continuously learning mindset.
The status quo requires no leadership. Think about it. If everything in the current situation was great ”“ if there was no need for change ”“ how much leadership would be needed? Leadership is required because we want to move somewhere. In other words, the need for leadership is predicated on change, and so leaders must be prepared to work under changing conditions. If conditions change, then learning is required to continually adapt to and work under the changing conditions. Remarkable leaders know their job is to move people through status quo. Therefore they know that they must continue to grow themselves to meet the needs of the situations and the people they are leading.
We must model it for others. While the needs and forces for learning are great, leaders aren’t just learning for themselves. Sure they are learning for their own competency and confidence as well as to better serve those they are leading, but they also are setting a tone and modeling for those that are following them. When you are a leader, whether by position or reputation, people are looking to you ”“ whether you like it or not, you are a role model. How then, can leaders expect their teams to continue to grow and develop if they aren’t doing it themselves?
Better leader = better human. The best leaders are learners for all of the reasons above (and their own other reasons), but they also know something else. They know that in the end, the skills that make them better leaders also make them more highly functioning human beings. Remarkable leaders are learners because they want to be better leaders and because they want to be better people. For example, learning how to communicate more effectively makes you more effective in more than in just your role as a leader ”“ that skill development, that growth, spills out into every part of your life. If none of the other reasons above are compelling enough for you, this one should be!
So, if learning is such an important skill, why don’t people notice it and/or add it to the list of traits of great leaders?
Precisely because it is the underlying skill.
People can become exceptional at the other skills on the list because they are willing to learn, grow, improve and change. They know that to become more effective they must continue to improve. They know that effective leadership is a journey ”“ so they remain focused on becoming more effective, not on arriving and maintaining.
The mindset of being on the path, of constantly being a learner, is the path of the truly remarkable leader.
The good news is that you can choose that path everyday. You can choose to be a more effective leader ”“ and your first choice is to become a learner.
You can make that choice anytime. Today’s the day to start.
by Kevin Eikenberry, Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group. You can read more of Kevin’s thoughts on Leadership and Learning on Kevin’s Blog. You can also subscribe to his weekly newsletter, Unleash Your Potential here.