“Learning about yourself and about leadership are not the same as leading. Leading is doing. You need to make leading a daily habit. You need to do something every day to learn more about leading, and you need to put those lessons into practice every day.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner in “The Leadership Challenge”.
The Principle of dwindling learning
One of the dangers of operating at top executive level is what I call the Principle of Dwindling Learning. The principle is that the higher people go in the hierarchy of organizations, the lower their rate of learning.
The principle has a wider application in the inverse relationship between age and the rate of learning. Warren Buffett, who will celebrate his 87th birthday this month is a great example of an individual that defies the principle. He never stops learning even about the field of investment in which he is an expert. The positive note is that just as the law of gravity is defied by the law of lift, the principle of dwindling learning can be upturned by deliberate learning.
It is well established that people learn and become expert at whatever they do through practice. Not just practice but deliberate practice. In various fields of endeavour such as sports, music, art, teaching and even parenting, there is always a practical side that enhances expertise. Organizations might give an extended label to practice by reference to on-the-job training or job experience. What is actually taking place is that people are in practice. Professional bodies in healthcare, law, accountancy and other vocations emphasize intentional practical experience as part of development.
Top executives also require deliberate practice in order to improve as leaders. They should not assume that their status implies they are sufficiently good leaders or leadership role models. Instead, top executives should have a mental model that defies the principle of dwindling learning.
Sergei Nikiforov, a senior director of sales concludes regarding practice that, “At first, I was a bit overwhelmed with the discovery of how many opportunities I had in a single day to act as a better leader. But as I have gotten to put these ideas into practice, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much improvement I have been able to make by being more conscientious and intentional about acting as a leader”.
Basic tools to aid deliberate practice include journaling, recognizing improvements, noting and acting upon repeat episodes of both positive and negative leadership behaviours and actually doing what you promised to do. It is also necessary for leaders to be mindful of enhancing their strengths and depleting their weaknesses. None of this can occur without a positive attitude to learning.
Executive roles by their nature can be lonely positions to occupy particularly for CEOs. Engaging support might also seem like an inappropriate prescription for know-a-lot CEOs. Behind the masks of executive meetings and attention lies the same vulnerability that everyone else faces. Fears about failure, sleepless nights about crises, and expressions of board and shareholder concerns all add to executive burdens. Yet, even without crises, C-suite executives require support from assistants, mentors, colleagues, peers and sometimes even competing CEOs. Engaging is an excellent mechanism for opposing the principle of dwindling learning.
The engagement of support helps individuals to step away from executive hubris to admit and rectify weaknesses. Support also enables the recognition and application of strengths. Executives have to acknowledge that leadership is a collaboration and not a solo act. This acknowledgement leads to pathways of learning such as peer reviews, mentoring, asking for feedback, building team cohesion, developing sounding boards and seeking counsel. Of course, executives should be open to asking for help from relevant people, whenever it is necessary. Help can come from any quarters including younger colleagues with whom executives may not ordinarily interact.
Consider how billionaire executives such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates form mentoring and sounding board platforms for each other. Gates admires Buffett’s “desire to teach things that are complex and put them in a simple form, so that people can benefit of all his experience.” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO credits Steve Jobs for advice on building a team and changing people’s lives through business. Even a seeming go-it-alone entrepreneur like Richard Branson admits that his success in the airline industry benefited from the mentorship of Freddie Laker, the pioneer of cheap air travel. These examples are there for top executives to follow – stay open to learning, be mentored and stay humble in spite of success.
Learning in the C-suite is as important as the titles and perks that go with the executive level of organisations. It should be based on making learning intentional through practice and engaging the support of others along the journey of leadership. This planned approach to learning detonates the impact of the principle of dwindling learning.