Good leaders never stop learning
Are leaders born or made? That never-ending debate is central to this paper. But the purpose here is not to take sides since the clear answer is “Both.” There is no question that some remarkable people enter the world with the confidence it takes to make difficult decisions along with a desire to lead and the natural ability to attract followers. Other leaders are nurtured, including many that succeed despite being thrust, often reluctantly, into leadership roles. Leaders from both camps, however, have been known to excel and fail to live up to their potential. So the question that really matters is: “How do good leaders learn to lead?”
As I discovered when studying the financial crisis of 2008, a great deal of leadership development stems from facing uncomfortable and difficult experiences. But good leaders are really the product of a never-ending process of skill and character development. Indeed, after spending the last year working on a book project called Good Leaders Learn, I am now more convinced than ever that good leaders develop through constant learning about their personalities, relationships and careers, not to mention the kind of leader they want to become. And although there are no silver bullets for becoming a good leader – because everyone takes a custom-made path — the journeys of the leaders I interviewed share several elements that can help management educators and organisations develop the world’s next generation of good business leaders while assisting the existing supply to become even better at their jobs.
For Good Leaders Learn, I interviewed 30-plus leaders, at various stages of their careers, from different industries, sectors and countries. The conversations revealed 10 clear pathways for learning to lead:
Performing, or excelling in a role; Risking, or taking chances to lead and to learn; Stretching, or going beyond one’s own personal comfort zone; Learning, or taking the time to reflect on past events to discern the lessons they offer; Self-awareness, or deliberately seeking to know one’s personal strengths and weaknesses; Trusting, or relying on one’s abilities and those of others to build a reputation for being trustworthy; Adapting, or the ability to act appropriately in different situations; Mentoring, or learning from other leaders and role models how to develop as a leader; Observing, or watching others and oneself to better understand events and situations; Integrating, or having the capacity to see and understand the “big picture.”
NO SURPRISES HERE
Every leader I met was driven to produce results. They relished taking calculated risks and pushing beyond their comfort zones. Mistakes in this crowd are seen as opportunities to learn by people well aware of their strengths and weakness. The leaders I met value trust. They are prepared to adapt in “one size does not fit all” situations. In order to develop, they seek out mentors and constantly learn by observing others. They look at an entire organisation, seeking to understand how the parts fit together as well as how the sum of all the parts fits in the world.
Simply put, the leaders I met were all passionate about excelling and dedicated to doing it through continual learning. As Purdy Crawford explained, good leaders never believe the sun rises and sets only in their own field of functional expertise. And in the words of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, the pursuit of new knowledge generates excitement along with opportunities.
Not surprisingly, the leaders whom I interviewed for the book were also big believers in accepting the consequences of failure. As Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain pointed out:
“LEADERSHIP AND ACCOUNTABILITY ARE INSEPARABLE.”
When the company wins, the team wins, insisted Bell Canada Enterprises CEO George Cope. “But the leader has to take responsibility when the outcome is disappointing. For example, I insisted that I be the one out there in public when our original bid to purchase Astral Media fell through, not the head of our media division. It was my duty to explain what happened and what we’d do to move forward.”
WHY A LEADER WANTS TO LEAD
What was surprising, however, was the fact that most of the leaders in my book lacked an early, burning ambition to be glorified as a leader. Many couldn’t even recall when they joined the leadership ranks. Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was never hit by a stroke of lightning that made him jump up and declare, “Genghis Khan, here I come!” Intact Financial Corporation CEO Charles Brindamour never made a conscious choice to be a leader. “I wanted to thrive within the group and maybe lead the group at one time, but not for the sake of leadership.” As he got older, Cope recognised that leadership came with a long list of responsibilities, including leading by example, because “if you start to cross the line in any negative way, everyone else is going to cross the line.” But when he started out in business, he just wanted to build teams to beat other teams, like he really enjoyed doing as the captain of his high school basketball team.
Instead of dreaming of corner offices with private bathrooms, the leaders I met were initially driven by a desire to make a positive impact as an individual or team member. Formal leadership roles sparked the desire to excel as an organisational head, but also reinforced the willingness to collaborate and trust the judgement of others. That’s a key lesson. As pointed out by Chaviva Hosek, former head of the Canadian Institute For Advanced Research, “If you think you need to be able to do everything well, you’re out of your mind and you are very insecure. Just find the few things you can do well, and do them, and then let other people do the things they do well and appreciate what they can do.”
Being a leader is never easy. When John Furlong led the bid team for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, many people thought he was doomed to fail for going “a vision too far.” But he pushed forward relentlessly. Over a decade later, as CEO of VANOC, he delivered what the IOC described as the most successful Winter Games ever.
But success came with a high cost. “It’s an easy thing to say, but to experience something that never goes away, that lives on your pillow, wakes up on your pillow, causes unseemly behaviour by other people and leads to things happening to you and your family that are so terrible and unforgivable – that was very tough. I would say, as a Dad, I was missing in action for a long time. Although my family forgave that in advance, it wasn’t something that I should have allowed to be forgiven.”
LEADERSHIP CAN BE LEARNED
The good news is that everyone I interviewed agrees that good leadership can be learned by anyone with basic smarts backed by an unwavering commitment to ongoing development and collaboration. ”Leadership skills are innate to all of us,” notes Amit Chakma, Western University’s president and vice-chancellor, “but how much we develop those skills is in a large part determined by the opportunities we have to take on leadership roles, and how readily we embrace those opportunities.”
Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, insists:
“THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE LEARNED EVERY DAY, BOTH BY LOOKING IN THE MIRROR AT YOURSELF AND BY LOOKING AT THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU.”
The trick to good leadership is making time for the hard work that continual learning requires. As Barbara Stymiest, Chair, BlackBerry, told me: “My challenge the last 25 years has been to continue to inform myself in a rich way about what is going on in the world.” When Brindamour became CEO of Intact, he blocked three to four hours every morning to gain a better understanding of areas that could influence his company or the lives of his employees. “Learning to have perspective on things is really important. It’s never all black or white,” he says, adding: “If you don’t make this a priority, you risk the organisation becoming complacent.” Elyse Allan, CEO of GE Canada, was prone to black-and-white thinking about what motivates people shortly after arriving at GE from the consulting world. But she became a better leader after listening to simple feedback that said: “You’ve got to go out for a beer with folks and get to know them.”
Arkadi Kuhlmann, former CEO and chairman of ING Direct USA, thanks mentors for making him make time for regular post-mortems, which he conducts like a die-hard hockey fan analysing the performance of his or her favourite team. “It’s funny,” he says. “We will argue for hours about why a goal was scored, or not scored, and how an individual played, and so on. In business, and even in family situations, we just won’t do those kinds of post-mortems.”
“I AM MY GREATEST CHALLENGE”
But all the post-mortems in the world will not help an over confident or closed-minded individual develop good leadership. “I am my greatest challenge,” Michael Clemons, the former football star and current vice-chair of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, once told my students, stressing that maintaining humility is required to learn from others, not to mention learning from your own mistakes. Avoiding the tendency to become arrogant is critical because stakeholders and boards eventually lose patience with CEOs with closed minds. “It is easy how leadership can get away from one’s foundation,” says Cassie Campbell, captain of the Canadian ice hockey team that won gold during the 2002 Winter Olympics. She said that at one point in her career “I allowed my head to swell a little bit. It is tempting to think that you are a little better than you actually are.”
LEADERSHIP IN INDIA
For Good Leaders Learn, I learned a lot about maintaining humility by travelling to India and listening to N.R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder and chairman emeritus of software giant Infosys, Gautam Thapar, chairman of the Avantha Group and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founding chair of Biocon. Each of these leaders has to work extra hard at maintaining perspective because the hierarchical structure in India surrounds successful people with an aura that makes it difficult to foster candour and establish relationships. “You almost expect to be treated a certain way,” says Mazumdar-Shaw. “And when you’re not treated a certain way you get uppity. That’s not a good trait.”
Biocon’s founder, who was taught by her brewmaster father to respect anyone who works hard at doing a good job, relies on her husband to keep her grounded. “He always reminds me of a very important saying: People that mind, don’t matter, and people that matter, don’t mind.” Simply put, relying on others is how she leads. “I am like a sponge. I absorb a lot. I like to hire people who are smarter than me,” she says, adding there are two styles of leadership. ”There are leaders who want to command and control. The other kind of leader focuses on collaboration and empowering people. I like to do the latter.”
Believe it or not, when Murthy gets home after a long day at the office, he frequently cleans the family lavatory. He doesn’t do this to impress his wife. Learning from Gandhi, the billionaire takes on tasks widely considered beneath his station as a reminder that all contributions to society should be valued. “In the corporate context,” he says, “it shows that you have respect for everybody’s contribution.” As far as Murthy is concerned, sustainable success requires CEOs to recognise that there are smarter people who do things better. “Once you have that humility, once you have that openness of mind, even when you are doing well, it is possible to learn from people who are doing better than you both within the organization and outside the organisation.” But recognising that you can benefit from other people’s honest opinions isn’t enough because employees don’t like to disagree with the boss. As a result, Murthy says, the biggest challenge a leader has is to create channels for feedback and keep them open. “The day a leader closes those feedback channels,” he says, “is the day when a leader’s power starts diminishing and he or she starts doing things that are completely wrong.”
At Infosys, Murthy had one rule: “You can disagree with me as long as you are not disagreeable.” Among other things, this openness to polite opposition allowed him to learn what employees really thought about his leadership style. “Many colleagues have come to me and said I am too sales oriented; and that I value the contribution of sales people much more than the contribution of other people. That was a big revelation to me.”
Thapar, who was advised by an early mentor to remove the word impossible from his vocabulary and shoot for the stars while keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground, is also big on remaining humble. “If you don’t have a certain amount of humility and introspection, you are at risk of derailment,” he says, noting there are plenty of so-called icons of management “whose corpses litter the road of downfall.” In Thapar’s opinion, any business leader who writes a management book while still in office should be sacked for hubris. “An organisation is not static. It’s a dynamic living thing.” No good leader, he adds, “can believe he or she knows everything there is to know about the job today, tomorrow and the day after.”
Remaining humble when things don’t turn out the way we want is also important. I recently had the good fortune to meet Sami Jo Small, who played goal for the 2002 Canadian Olympic Women’s Hockey Team. She trained for years. She made sacrifices. And when coaches told her that she would not play for the gold in the final game, she was initially devastated and angry. But Small didn’t waste energy feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she cheered on her team to the best of her abilities.
“IN LIFE,” SHE SAYS, “YOU DON’T ALWAYS GET TO CHOOSE THE ROLE YOU PLAY, BUT YOU DO GET TO CHOOSE HOW YOU PLAY IT.” PEOPLE AT EVERY LEVEL OF AN ORGANISATION CAN LEARN FROM THAT MOTTO.
As this short article has strived to stress, good leaders follow a challenging and never-ending path of learning, which requires keeping an open mind. And that’s asking a lot from folks often glorified by the market and media for taking the easy route that short-term thinking and ethical corner-cutting provide. But having the character it takes to put ego aside and collaborate is now more important than ever before. As pointed out by Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré (Ret.), who led the U.S. military’s response to numerous crisis situations, including the Washington sniper spree and the devastation of New Orleans by Mother Nature in 2005, “command and control will not serve the future,” not even for military officers. Sharing control over decision-making, he adds, is often the only way, “to get things done in the new normal,” where hierarchical thinking is a barrier to achieving results. So the next time you pick up a gift for a business student, give them a toilet brush to remind them of what at least one billionaire is willing to do to remain humble enough to lead like a good leader.