Article: Why it is crucial for leaders to be learners

Leadership Development

Why it is crucial for leaders to be learners

Changing business environment demand leaders to learn, re-learn, and unlearn continuously to reinvent themselves at a much faster pace than the environment. What are the critical C-suite skills, art & science behind developing those?
Why it is crucial for leaders to be learners

Most of us have been growing up on the fodder of a leader as a teacher, to the extent that it has now become an acronym. Leadership has always meant teaching or coaching people, motivating them and all the additional aspects except learning. There are many benefits to leaders teaching all of us. Especially if leaders are teaching the truth and what they teach has an impact, their rating as a leader and a teacher will always be high. The problem arises when leaders are teaching but not learning. 

In any organization, there are engagement surveys and various feedback sessions, and yet people don’t learn. What can you do to make sure our leaders learn? We have examples of great leaders like Alexander the Great that make us look up at our leaders as someone larger than life but not someone who never stops learning. In terms of leadership, one of the things you can’t afford to do in today’s world is not learning. 

In a panel discussion at People Matters L&D Conference 2019 on ‘Leaders as learners’ Raj Raghavan, Senior Vice President, Human Resources , IndiGo (Chair); Sheetal Ramesh, Regional Head, IMEA - Leadership,Learning and Organizational Capability, Boeing India; and Ravi Kodukula,Executive Director & Head - Learning & Organization Development, JP Morgan Chase & Co., shared insights on what are the critical C-suite skills, art & science to enable leaders to learn, re-learn, and unlearn continuously to reinvent themselves at a much faster pace than the environment.

Learning by creating experiences

Learning is not about sending instructions; instead, it is about creating experiences. One of the things learning and development professionals can do is think about how they can bring out new experiences. When we talk about experiences, it’s not about simulations or classrooms but real-life experiences. This pattern of learning from experiences should be brought to each of our leaders. One of the reasons why leaders find it challenging to learn from experiences is because time is money and leaders don’t have that kind of time. There are three things to keep in mind while learning:

  • We must ensure that the leaders bring in those experiences in their day to day jobs.
  • Creating experiences is the first step, the next is that the leaders should be able to connect it with what they already know, expand the whole experience to bring it in a newer picture or make more unique possibilities out of it. 
  • Finally, the leaders should be able to challenge it with the thoughts and learnings they already have. As it’s said, ‘The canvas that the leaders claim is much bigger than what they can think about.’ All they have to do is paint experiences on it

Framework for learning

For creating experiences, you need to have a framework. This framework to create experiences while they are working in an organization can be divided into four parts: 

Global: Leaders are like a sponge to the macro trends, geopolitical happenings from which they can absorb ideas and create experiences around the same.

Organizational: In this layer, they look at the organization itself. The communities around them, the trends around them, the patterns, understanding that and looking at that to create new possibilities. 

Interpersonal: This layer becomes a bit tougher as it involves creating experiences through emotions. It is crucial to maintain the balance between building relationships, the engagements that you have and your emotional quotient. As the leaders create these experiences during work, it becomes more difficult. These relations do not happen in classrooms. 

Self: This is the most robust layer as the primary question here is ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is the authenticity that I bring in?’

These four layers are essential for effective learning as a leader. It is almost like peeling layers of an onion and the more layers you peel, the more tears you shed.

Evolving the next sigmoid curve 

In the book Homo Deus, the author Yuval Noah Harari has given the three causes for mass deaths in the past centuries, which are, wars, plague and natural calamities. However, situations have changed over the years, and so will the causes for maximum deaths will change in the future to come. An estimate would be terrorism, fake news and irrelevance. There is still hope, particularly if you are riding the sigmoid curve. 

A sigmoid curve is the S-shaped curve of the greek alphabet sigma which shows a drop followed by a rise and again a drop. It’s a part of any given life cycle such as the life cycle of a product, brand, career. It is also the life cycle of all empires such as the Russian empire, Roman empire or the British empire and all the empires to come. Riding the sigmoid curve, those drops that you experience is when learning becomes crucial and takes you to the peak.  

Right now, we are amid a political empire that might be on a sigmoid curve as well. When it is you who are riding the sigmoid, you take a dip while you stop and learn, then your resume, you peak and later the inevitable fall. After one sigmoid curve is done, you evolve the next sigmoid curve. There are three points you can be at while riding the sigmoid curve:  

  • When you’re just about to peak: When you are just about peaking, that is, point A, is when you evolve the next sigmoid curve. How would you know if you are about to peak? Well, if you don’t know whether you are at point A, all you have to do is imagine that you’re at point A. This might be theoretically excellent, but the real challenge would be to implement it practically.
  • When you’re at the peak: When you’re at the peak, your motivation level is high, but your energy is extremely low because everything is available to you at ease, so you don’t evolve the next curve at that stage.  
  • When you’re down in the dumps: Your energy is low and your motivation maybe from low to mid when you’re down in the dumps, and that is the time when the best of people in your contact list stop taking your calls. 

A famous saying goes, “A group of lions led by a sheep can easily be defeated by a herd of sheep led by a lion.” Learning for any leader is a tool that provides new experiences and new ways to approach problems that were a hindrance in the past. In other words, creating a framework for learning is the gateway to success.


(This article is based on a panel discussion on ‘Leaders as learners’ conducted during the People Matters L&D Conference 2019.)

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Topics: Leadership Development, Learning & Development, #PMLnD

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