We can no longer pretend that competent leadership is produced primarily by inherited genes, training at business schools, or programs on leadership development. Athletes, chefs, financiers and actors (and a majority of other successful professionals) reach peak performance due to years of learning and practice. So also, managers can master the art of leading from years of learning and practicing leadership.
How is this proficiency achieved? Almost four decades of research tells us that the bedrock of experience is the foundation on which leadership capacity is built. What I mean by “experience” is work assignments that stretch managers beyond their current capabilities to achieve more than they may have imagined as possible.
We also know that a combination of five types of experiences imparts more than half of the skills and perspectives necessary for leading effectively. (These five experiences have been identified by the Center for Creative Leadership’s research across China, India, Singapore and the U.S. and will be described in a forthcoming newsletter.) But the question that begs to be asked is not which experiences matter the most; rather, given the same experiential opportunities, why do some managers learn and other fail to learn?
This conundrum merits our attention. And although we do not know what makes a person ready, willing and able to learn, I will argue that estimating a person’s ability to learn--rather than ability to lead--is a far better predictor of how likely they are to lead effectively and succeed.
According to the CCL’s research (which builds on the work of David Kolb), superior learners blend four learning tactics, and seek out both challenges and feedback from their environment. The tactics that let them forge ahead through any situation that they encounter for the first time are:
- Thinking: reflecting and working alone to plan, strategize, and envision
- Accessing others: gaining assistance and support to solve problems and co-learn
- Taking action: acting on the problem and seeking resolution
- Staying self-aware: reflecting on their own feelings, attitudes, emotions and reactions to the problem, and paying special attention to managing stress.
Why is learning agility so very important for Indian leaders? If we look at business challenges in India, we realize that leadership covers not only running a company or an organization, but working across multiple constituencies with complex and contradictory agendas and also responding to the call to be responsible citizens who can act to meet the needs of local communities.
What is demanded from leaders is therefore very complex. This brave new world summons leaders to continually come to grips with shifting circumstances that are not completely within their control. This new world calls on leaders to continually adopt new ways of thinking and acting. In other words, our world today calls on leaders to become sprightly learners and cultivate the new X-Factor for success: learning agility.