04 Oct 2018 21:04 IST

Why you should be a learning leader

It’s that combination of awareness, intellectual humility and curiosity that we need to strive for

This column began close to three years ago, reflecting on learnability quotient. Besides an IQ, EQ and XQ (execution quotient), we have looked at how a learnability quotient is now an essential part of the leadership kit. Companies, markets, products, customer needs, economic conditions, among other things, are changing so rapidly that the shelf life of learning has become shorter and shorter.

Leaders who won’t unlearn, learn and relearn will find their leadership techniques either severely compromised or ineffective. Those who follow the learning path are the ones whose leadership will thrive and who will be able to lead their teams and organisations better, so that they don’t just deal with change but harness it. What kind of an attitude is required for leaders to go down this continuous learning path?

Awareness

On October 1, the corporate world was stunned by the news that GE fired its CEO, John Flannery, who had been in the job for just over a year. Since he took over, GE’s stock price had more than halved and had recently hit a nine-year low. While several root causes of the problem pre-date Flannery’s tenure, I suspect he fell victim to the Maslow syndrome — ‘He that is good with a hammer, tends to think everything is a nail’. I suspect Flannery dealt with the GE CEO role in the same way he operated in his past roles — using the same strengths and, perhaps, taking a little more time to become aware that the job needed significant unlearning, relearning and new learning. GE has now brought in an outsider, which may be acceptance of the belief that, in some ways, the ‘insiders’ had stopped learning and, therefore, being agile, nimble and responsive. It is a lesson we can all absorb.

Leaders need to have a keen sense of awareness of old strengths and how they could be inadequate in changed circumstances, of blind spots in their experience and competence. Once there is awareness and acceptance, the learning cycle can kick in.

Intellectual humility

A learning leader is someone who needs to be very secure in herself. One of the biggest barriers to learning is insecurity. Leaders who always want to appear in control, who never want to be seen as less than perfect, struggle to be learners. A learning leader has the intellectual humility to say that there is a lot they do not know, there is a lot they need to learn to be more effective and able to contribute to the organisation. She should not mind appearing as a beginner, and should be willing to surrender the ‘expert’ tag.

When Ratan Tata stepped down as Chairman of Tata Group in 2012, he stepped into a new role as angel investor, especially investing in a range of e-commerce companies, from Bluestone to Ola, Urban Ladder and Paytm. For someone who spent a lot of his time overseeing manufacturing and service behemoths, this must surely have felt new. But I like to think that Tata enjoyed taking on this new role. I think, he enjoyed learning about new-age businesses. I can imagine him researching and asking a lot of questions, because one of his defining qualities has always been intellectual humility. He has always gone beyond himself to be open to others, their expertise, experiences and learnings. This has not only been helpful in his leadership but in his learning.

During our education stage, unfortunately, being the expert with all the answers is prized. This is poor preparation for the leadership role, which will require us to shed the know-it-all attitude. It is best to start practising — talk to a professor from a different field of study than the one you are pursuing, have a conversation with a classmate who brings a different perspective to a debate, or take up an online course that requires you to don the beginner’s hat. All of these will help you develop the intellectual humility that is a must if you want to become a learning leader.

One the most important behavioural aspect that helps here is listening — it both demonstrates the quality of intellectual humility as well as fosters it.

Curiosity

A constant urge to learn, and be curious about things is a must for leaders. Steve Jobs credits walking into a calligraphy class when he was studying at Stanford for the enormous impact design and form play in Apple. It became a winning culture because of his curiosity.

Our curiosity should extend beyond just our products and services, to getting to know our customers better, understanding what works for our competitors, getting to know our team mates better, analysing the experiences we have and trawling them for the nuggets of insights that could help us become better leaders.

Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss, provides a good anecdote about visiting a customer at home in Bengaluru. The lady shared experiences about wearing different pairs of jeans and when she came to her Levi’s pair, she said, “You wear other jeans, but you live in Levi’s.” That dramatic comment became a transformational insight for him and ‘Live in Levi’s’ soon became the advertising tag-line that captured the spirit of the brand. None of that would have happened without the curiosity Bergh displayed.

From that example, it is clear that one of the most powerful tools of curiosity is asking questions. It’s a skill that learning leaders must acquire, and it only comes with practice. Don’t ask questions to show-off or put people down; ask because you are genuinely compelled by a desire to learn.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Harvard professor Francesca Gino shares an incident about WebMD Health CEO, Patricia Fili-Krushel. She was meeting with a group of male engineers in Silicon Valley and there were clearly question marks in their eyes about her credibility in a room full of engineers. They eventually popped the question — what did she know about engineering? Patricia calmly made a zero with her fingers. “This is how much I know about engineering. However, I do know how to run businesses, and I’m hoping you can teach me what I need to know about your world.” It’s that combination of awareness, intellectual humility and curiosity that we need to strive for.

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