Home > Articles > 7 Qualities of Learning Leaders

7 Qualities of Learning Leaders

Some may think there’s more than enough written on leadership, or that everything that can be said, has been. Search for the term “leadership” online, and you’ll get some 450 million hits.

But that's just the virtual echo chamber. The reality? Excellent leadership is not only scarce, but extremely difficult to achieve. There’s no question that we have much to glean from revisiting past knowledge, from continually recommitting ourselves to being lifetime Learning Leaders.

One of the common debates in our field is the difference between management and leadership.

Seth Godin describes the differences:

“Managers work to get their employees to do what they did yesterday, but a little faster and a little cheaper. Leaders, on the other hand, know where they'd like to go, but understand that they can't get there without their tribe, without giving those they lead the tools to make something happen. Managers want authority. Leaders take responsibility.”

This definition does a bit of disservice to some of our best managers, but the generalization is useful and raises many questions. How do leaders determine where they’d like to go? Where do they learn that they can’t do it alone? Where do leaders figure out which tools the “tribe” needs? And where are leaders taught how to take responsibility, to hold themselves and others accountable? Some of those things are learned from graduate school, or apprenticing under a good leader. Others are learned on the job. Of course, the challenge of learning on the job is that a hectic environment often does not allow time for critical self-reflection.

Take Christian as an example. Articulate and bright, Christian quickly rose through the ranks from direct service to management and, following graduate school, to COO. Christian was good at his job but earned a reputation for flying off the handle when criticized, often yelling at others. Christian’s CEO received many complaints, but she was afraids he would upset Christian, and ultimately lose the talented COO, if she approached Christian with her concerns.  Therefore, the CEO neglected to give Christian any feedback about the ways his behavior interfered with his effectiveness, and the effectiveness of his “tribe.” Then the CEO abruptly left the company, and Christian was promoted to CEO. It wasn’t long before the Board started getting anonymous complaints about Christian’s temper. The Board President insisted on a “360” multi-rater review; Christian was shocked and devastated by the negative results about his behavior. Fortunately, Christian committed himself to making the necessary changes, ultimately excelling in a role he had almost lost. After a year of working on the relevant issues, using coaching, self-monitoring and other tools, Christian received dramatically higher marks on a repeat review from staff and Board alike.

This situation was totally avoidable. Had Christian received feedback, and had the CEO modeled the leadership basics Christian lacked, he would have had ample opportunity to increase his self-awareness and adjust problem behaviors - and he would have better earned his promotion to CEO besides.

In my experience, there are seven traits that Learning Leaders demonstrate.

Learning Leaders:

1. Create an environment that is safe for expressing opinions, disagreeing and debating in order to formulate the best decisions.

2. Listen to differences of opinion consistently and openly, without becoming defensive or disrespectful.

3. Seek ongoing feedback, because they know  that effective strategizing is impossible without understanding their impact on others.

4. Generate “fearless feedback” and expect the same in return - input that is immediate, respectful, and in direct response to employees, whether they’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing.

5. Practice “Intentional Leadership”: every action is deliberate and aimed at achieving the mission.

6. Do not lose their temper in public:  a “lost” temper indicates a lack of control and disrespect for others, while simultaneously giving others permission to do the same.

7. Own their actions and those of the organization. Learning Leaders blame no one. Ever.

Once a leader is able to model these seven principles consistently, he or she can (and must) expect them of all employees. (Where did I learn these principles?  From courageous supervisors and managers years ago who had the courage to give me what Apple calls “Fearless Feedback.”)

Do you follow all of these? If not, which ones need attention? Which one is the most difficult to practice? Are you a Learning Leader?

Judy Nelson is a dynamic and committed coach, consultant and motivational speaker. Judy’s specialty is working with non-profit organizations, and can be found at www.coachjudynelson.com.

Subscribe to GCN Articles RSS