Why Learning is a Leader’s Most Important Skill

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.


  1. says

    Kevin, excellent point! And leaders who are not life long learners will be short term successes, or only fit in and work in those circumstances where what they know is “still current”. As the world flattens and competition increases across all industries, these non-learning leaders will be forced to either learn, or step aside.
    I would go further and extend this to all of us, each leaders in our own way. If we do not take life long learning as an underlying principle, we will fall behind.
    One of the glories of this Ho’ohana community is that while we formally come together each September, Rosa prompts and urges us to do so all year.
    I want to thank you for your participation in this month long event, and by extention to the others before you: each day, the postings have been spot on. I just spent the weekend at the first PodCamp in Boston and returned home to read this. Good timing! Thank you!

  2. says

    Great article Kevin. I had never thought of learning as being the ONE, most important skill for leaders, but you make a persuasive argument, and I think you’re right. Well done, and well illustrated.

  3. says

    I too hadn’t thought of learning as being THE skill but your argument is not just persuasive but strongly resonant with my own experiences of managing and being managed. Thanks for the insight

  4. says

    Excellent insight Kevin! Your words ring so true to me. Without the want, desire and need to learn, none of the other things exist for leaders. Mahalo for the paradigm shift and the tribute to the need to learn.

  5. says

    Kevin, I’ve long thought of leaders as being the ones who live in the brave new world of fresh ideas, brave experiments, and future-predicting visions, and certainly, all of those things are power-generated by the propulsion of learning. Leaders inspire us, and they can’t do that without being inspired themselves first; that’s what learning does for them.
    With that as my usual starting point, what you’ve offered here adds some significant texture. I certainly do believe that leaders are champions of change, and that they are role models. Because I normally think of leaders as the best-fit partners to great managers, I love the thought that with both embracing the complexity of our humanity they are also very reasonable, and very grounded in knowing they must continue to learn. They simply must. It becomes a non-negotiable, and for me, that’s a very comforting thought.
    As you say, better leader = better human.
    Better human = better aloha.

  6. says

    You’ve got me thinking about the leader’s *underlying* skills. Learning is definitely an asset that a leader must have. I would say that there are certain things that lie at the core of an effective leader that isn’t always obvious on the surface. I believe you nailed it with learning. In fact, I would say that the capacity to keep a learning mindset could be a combination of some other *underlying* attributes.
    Learning = humility combined with courage.
    What do you think?