Good Leaders are Good Learners – Are You?
Oh, sure, I am always open to feedback…
Is it true? Or is it hard to ask for and receive feedback? Even if we know it will have value, learning about ourselves is a risky business.
Coachability is a word that struck me the first time I heard it. It puts the responsibility on the client, not on the coach. I had to ask myself, how coachable am I really?
There’s a huge variation in our learning strategies, especially in the arenas of communication and behavior. In school, we were taught many subjects. Only a fortunate few learned the most important thing: how to learn. Many of us learned instead to perform what was asked of us. As adults, we can revisit our learning strategies. We need to reclaim our ability to be self-directed learners who can also accept coaching from others.
What distinguishes a good learning strategy?
It asks questions such as “How can I apply this?” rather than “Where won’t this work?”
Good learning strategies assume that there is a positive intention behind most behavior rather than assuming that people who disagree must be irrational.
Outstanding learners go after feedback: they want to know more about how others respond to them and what they may be missing. Their strategies include not taking the feedback personally, a rare skill. If you can take it as being useful for you and as much about the person who is giving it as about you, you can glean much insight without umbrage.
A logical / analytical option is to use a tool known as an assessment instrument that yields data about workstyles, communication styles, perceptual biases, and so forth. (See the upcoming events column for a program on assessments happening this week in Silicon Valley).
Many of our non-coachable responses are invisible to us. For instance, when I first taught a Transactional Analysis 101 course, I was supervised by my mentor and dear friend Dr. Jo Lewis. As she gave me feedback, I felt I needed to respond to each item, either justifying what I had done or commenting in some way. When she pointed it out, it was glaring.
I was not very coachable, even though I professed to want the feedback (which, by the way, was very valuable). I don’t know where I learned that pattern, and it was very helpful to become aware and stop doing that. Without someone to coach me into being a better learner, I wonder how long I would have hung onto it.
In our three-day seminars, we observe that some people come in with good learning strategies. Others spend the three days working through resistance and beginning to create new strategies. By the third day, hopefully, they are ready to learn.
What is so threatening about learning, and specifically learning to be better communicators?
First of all, the idea that we need to learn something hints that we are not already totally skillful. If you had a family like mine, you grew up with the expectation that if you were smart, you already knew things. Being a good learner wasn’t valued: being a good performer was. There was no graceful way to navigate the learning process and maintain a polished exterior.
I’ve had the good fortune to be in a career where there are many ways to ask and receive interpersonal feedback. Training as a therapist, trainer, coach, all involve much personal interaction in small and large groups and one-on-one. If you have not engaged in process-oriented learning, it’s something to consider. Many leadership programs have a least some component of this kind of process. This is embedded in Syntax leadership courses, and is more fully developed in coaching and culture change engagements.
In collaboration, someone will always have more expertise than you in one or another aspect of the task you are working on together. If you have a knee-jerk defense or know-it-all reaction, how helpful is that? Somehow, being a smart kid didn’t necessarily equip us for learning from our teammates. Unless we focus on it, we may not even recognize we are creating a less than optimal space for learning.
Learning about our behavior and the choices we have moment-to-moment is as present as air and often as invisible.
Being a learner means being willing to be open about the trials and errors along the way. Learning as a communicator means seeking out coaching from peers, a professional coach, or a mentor. We do NOT know the impact of our behavior without feedback from others.
When a leader is willing to learn openly, and can receive feedback authentically and graciously, he or she is demonstrating true leadership. Role modeling is the most powerful form of permission for others to be open about their learning as well.
Changes drive much of our learning. All of us are learning like crazy these days — the new Facebook and Twitter pages, Go-to-Webinar, your new smartphone–and who knows what other emerging platforms will pull us in next.
Whatever the specific technology, learning to use it so that it enhances mutual understanding is one of the great social learning assignments of our time.
The amazing thing is how much we actually do absorb and utilize from the masses of stimuli out there.
We can expand our ability to learn throughout our lives. They say that people who are too old to learn were probably always too old to learn. Instead, seek out ways to be consciously coachable and lead the way.