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Great Leaders Learn Out Loud

By: Chip R. Bell

The world’s most innovative companies are led by leaders with one characteristic in common—they are as zealous about learning as they are about their breakthroughs and discoveries. In a massive research study that produced the book The Innovator’s DNA (HBR Press), authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen found that innovation leaders observe the world like anthropologists: they ask provocative, disruptive questions, and perpetually experiment. In a word—they learn—and they learn in an obvious manner!

“Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach,” wrote Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor. Great leaders get an adrenaline rush out of always honing their skills, enhancing their understanding, and deepening their wisdom. Such leaders are impatient, hungry souls never satisfied with what they know because they appreciate the fact that antiquated is just around the corner and obsolete is just down the hall. Most of all they create a curiosity culture by learning out loud.

Walk into the headquarters of Google in Mountain View, CA, Zappos near Las Vegas, or Pixar near San Francisco, and you can feel the heat of originality cooking in the organizational oven. What you later learn is that you are in a place with an everlasting focus on growth. The popular label for this environment is a “learning organization,” but a more accurate description is a “discovering organization.” Discovering suggests a vigorous search and a deliberate exploration. Insight is treasured over expertness.

When Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, wrote, “Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only sustainable competitive advantage,” he was speaking of the power of the hunt for insight, not the glorification of the attainment of aptitude. What are the factors common in a “discovering organization”? What do great leaders do to foster such a culture?

Great Leaders Communicate a Compelling Purpose

Pixar (Toy Story, Monster, Inc., Cars, etc.), now owned by Disney, was cofounded by Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. The company recently named the main building of its headquarters after the late Jobs. The current general manager, John Lasseter, is fond of saying, "The only thing Steve Jobs has ever asked me in all the years we've been together and have been partners, the only thing he has ever asked me is: Make it great." It was a clear and compelling purpose that has been the foundation of Lasseter’s creative leadership. Lasseter knows that observation is more powerful than conversation—what people see leaders do is more important than what they hear leaders say.

Great leaders demonstrate their passion for learning by constantly asking questions of managers and employees about the customers’ experience, progress on projects, and adventures in new business. And their query is borne of sincere interest and genuine curiosity, not a “check-up” inquisition. They look for every opportunity to learn and to communicate to their employees through their actions that searching for what is unknown is as important as acting on what is known. Most important, the theme of their questions always reflects a clear, compelling vision and purpose.

Great Leaders Are Storytellers

I was running a leader workshop on innovative service for a large division of Microsoft, a company Fast Company magazine listed recently as among the 50 most innovative companies in the U.S. The day started with a presentation by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. He opened with a poignant story about growing up in Detroit when his father was working as a manager at Ford. Everyone in the room was instructed, informed, and inspired by his compelling story.

Stories are memorable and rich in their capacity to convey purpose and cultivate acumen. Stories also stir inquisitiveness. It is that trait that inspires and advances frontline employees to give their best. Stories instruct everyone on focus. Stories telegraph a set of mores and values unique to the organization. When Southwest Airlines employees tell stories of retired CEO Herb Kelleher hiding in the luggage bin to surprise passengers as they entered the plane, they are really saying, “We are supposed to have fun.” When Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh tells the story about hating to come to work at a company he founded (and later sold to Microsoft for $265M), what he is really saying is that a great culture is more important than a focus on short-term profits.

Just as great teachers have always used stories to foster learning, effective leaders tell stories to serve as the glue to mold a gathering of people into a partnership of colleagues. If stories are told with consistency, conviction, and clarity, they are heard. If stories are followed by aligned actions and obvious accountability, they are believed. If stories are repeated by those not the subject of the tale, they become a part of the organizational DNA.

Great Leaders Drive Out Fear       

How leaders deal with error can say volumes about their commitment to learning and growth. When leaders meet error with rebuke, they send a very different message than those who view error as an opportunity for learning and problem solving.  Are your error-making employees quickly labeled as stupid, evil, or lazy? Isn’t it highly unlikely that the person in charge of hiring employees would have said, “Let me see how many foolish, malicious, or shiftless employees I can hire this week”?

Without risk, there’s no learning. But with risk comes the occasional honest mistake. And it is easier to gently rein in an overzealous, go-the-extra-mile employee than to find one with an enthusiastic attitude in the first place. Fostering boldness is a manifestation of trust. The greater the trust, the greater the freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility. The leader’s job is to coach employees to feel more and more comfortable with more and more responsibility. Great leaders help employees distinguish between a “Thou shalt not” law and an “It would be better if you didn’t” guideline. When honest errors occur, forgiveness is spoken, not just implied. Excellence is celebrated, even when it sometimes fails to yield the desired results.

Great Leaders Promote Unlearning, Not Just Learning

The path to growth begins with an “I don’t know” first step. Knowledge may give us the confidence to move into the realm of the unknown, but it is curiosity and interest that fuel that move. Leaders focus not only on learning but on encouraging the abandonment of outdated thinking and mired-in-tradition opinions. “The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life,” wrote the Greek philosopher Antisthenes “Is to unlearn what is untrue.” Antisthenes would know; he was a student of Socrates.

Great leaders create an atmosphere of perpetual experimentation that compels employees to innovate. In this context employees learn that to challenge the status quo is the norm. They will view those who cling to the past (rather than learning from the past and letting go of what no longer fits) as oddities with short tenures. Creating a climate that embraces experimentation and learning takes humble leaders willing to model unlearning.

Leaders set a powerful tone when they show that they are willing to “learn out loud” as well as to encourage others in continual discovery. Organizations populated by such leaders win in the marketplace because their products and services are more innovative, their strategic moves more agile, and their employees more passionate. This winning combination yields an enterprise wired for growth and destined for success.

About the Author(s)

Chip R. Bell is a customer-loyalty consultant and the author of several bestselling books. His most recent book (with Marshall Goldsmith) is the new edition of the internationally bestselling book Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning. for more information, visit www.managersasmentors.com