Leadership and Learning: the need for constant evolution

In a speech to be given in Dallas in 1963, JFK was to declare that “Leadership and Learning are Indispensable to each other”. Despite his assassination, the words of the US president, acknowledged to be one of history’s great leaders, live on to serve as a reminder of the need for leaders to be constantly evolving.

Dedicating yourself to continuous learning  can help you achieve ever higher levels of consciousness, a goal of every great leader: awareness of your inner power, the connectedness of everything and therefore your ability (actively or unconsciously) to affect a situation and people just by “being”. 

It also means learning to use this power responsibly: if you are committed to personal growth and increased consciousness, power will not corrupt but serve - both you and the common good. As never before, we need a change in the paradigm of leadership, to move beyond autocratic and dictatorial leadership styles and closer to spirit-driven leadership.

To be a conscious leader is to be growing and learning every day. Personally, I try to read at least a chapter or two a day of books on a range of subjects from leadership and success to psychology and emotional intelligence and from neuroscience to history. This goes beyond increasing knowledge, it brings about new insights, which as we become more aware and open to new ideas becomes ever more common and the insights more revealing. 

The opposite brings about complacency and hubris (arrogance/conceit) - a “know-it-all”, “my way is best” attitude that inevitably alienates us from people around us, especially those we wish to lead. As hard as it can be after years of experience, we must constantly be wary of the trap of thinking we know it all. 

John F Kennedy thought that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other, but what does that mean and how can you practically apply its implications?

A good leader should be constantly learning

This closes our minds to the infinite possibilities that exist, often hidden, and is the opposite of innovation, which questions everything to spark quantum leaps in how things are done.

Leadership and learning, therefore, seeks to balance humility - in this case the recognition of how much there is still to learn - and self-confidence, a leadership trait that is key to gaining the trust of those under you. As long as these two are in balance, you will be a good role model for your organisation, community and family.

John F. Kennedy inspired a nation to reach for the moon. A seemingly impossible goal was achieved within his ambitious timetable despite his assassination just 14 months after his momentous speech and so not being around for most of the decade he foresaw would see the first human step foot on the lunar surface. In explaining his belief in the importance of  America being be the one to “win the race”, he showed visionary leadership while placing learning at the heart of his argument: “We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

In the notes written for his speech at the Trade Mart in November 1963, he clarified the link between leadership and learning. He highlighted first the importance of community leadership in the advancement of learning and the reciprocal necessity of learning for “leadership's hopes for continued progress and prosperity”. He pointed to the example of MIT, then already an institution attracting investment from industry and whose world famous Media Lab, founded in 1985 and recently doubled in size, is still a global magnet for innovation in both industry and community projects such as smart cities.

Kennedy then stressed that “the link between leadership and learning...is even more indispensable in world affairs.” Ignorance and misinformation, he said, “can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country's security.”

The main key to MIT Media Lab’s success is it’s interdisciplinary approach - or, as its director, Joi Ito, described it in a interview with the Financial Times in 2013, “anti-disciplinary, which means filling the white space between disciplines”. It is thus able to multiply the opportunities for that quantum leap in progress. For example, its City Science initiative gathers minds from seven of MIT’s 27 research groups (You can find out more about this fascinating project and their six initial research themes by visiting the City Science Website.

The mere existence of such initiatives contrasts sharply with the “silo” mentality of many research and academic organisations, in which egos battle for pre-eminence and funding for their specialism. I would therefore argue that leadership and learning is a two way street in which academic institutions need themselves to continuously question their own leadership. 

The collaborative approach at MIT and the freedom and empowerment given to each group leader and in turn passed down to individual researchers attracts enviable levels of private funding from worldwide “member companies” from almost any industry you can think of, including the likes of Lego (which it turns out is a key tool for architectural modelling, including “smart blocks” which when used in physical modelling can be used to generate a 3D computer model). These 80 companies provide most of the $35m-a-year operating budget in a mutually beneficial partnership. Crucially for me, it is proof that sustainable development is possible by avoiding reliance on public funds. 

Three ways to boost leadership and learning

1. Observation:

In theory very simple but in practice requiring effort to consistently apply, this involves remembering that we have two ears and two eyes but only one mouth - and to use them in that proportion! A good leader looks and listens more than she speaks. Clearly you cannot learn anything about the people you are leading if you spend more time speaking than observing.

Observation and learning from it goes beyond the physical (words, tone of voice, non-verbal communication such as body language). It involves taking these physical cues and picking up on the non-physical signs. Reading between the lines, using - and trusting - your instinct, which if you are raising your level of consciousness will be easier and more accurate. This may be a quiet voice in your head (or heart) that warns you that something is not quite right. We call these “yellow alerts” and ignore them at our peril. They might be quite subtle, so it requires practice to “listen” for these signs.

The more we observe how people act, react and interact, the better able we will be to understand their needs and motivation and how to best serve these needs and harness their motivation and individual strengths.

2. Research:

Taking time to read, listen or watch informative media is an essential part of any professional’s life, but not everyone makes this part of their daily life. Two things are worth pointing out here: 

Firstly, recognise that this is part of “me time”, an essential time everyone needs without external pressures. It’s not always easy to find me time but setting aside some time for learning should be easier to justify, especially when material covered can directly affect your job. From there you can extend it gradually to include some quiet time to reflect on these first two learning activities. Without quiet reflecting, like homework and study is to school learning, its impact will be limited; with it, the opportunities for new insight and learning are limited only by your current level of awareness (which has no limits).

Secondly, if you are not constantly eager to expand your knowledge, especially in your particular field, this raises a question of your commitment to your current position. Where is your passion? If there is no passion behind what you do, it will show outwardly which in turn will affect your people who will be even less motivated. On the other hand, if you are passionate, you naturally want to seek out new angles and information to help you perform better - which will also excite your people and hopefully inspire them to be equally committed to self-improvement. Ask yourself why you are leading or wanting to lead. Then find the time for at least a small amount of daily research. The fact you are reading this is a good sign!

3. “Formal” training and development:

As I said at the beginning of this article, you don’t need a tertiary qualification to be a great leader. If you take leadership and learning seriously, though, some form of training which requires regular input from and interaction with independent eyes and knowledge is important. If nothing else it gives you the opportunity to see, within a limited and safe environment, how others see you, clearly impossible on your own. 

I’ve always been a believer in the logic that says that pure knowledge transfer is most efficiently done oneself and at one’s own pace while learning about oneself and from the experience of others clearly requires external input. In practice, therefore, with a little self-discipline (an equally clear requisite of a leader) most “regular” knowledge can be done autonomously, even if part of a formal course which you buy off the shelf.

This leads me to conclude, confirmed by my own experience, that hiring a coach or at least participating in more interactive training than most traditional courses can allow for, is the most effective way of receiving more “formal” training. Having a coach is also the best kept secret of successful leaders.

I use quotation marks around “formal” because in reality, the nature of this kind of training is almost by definition informal, or at least less formal, not least because it is about people and human nature, not fixed curricula. Human nature and decision making have been proven by neuroscience to be far more about emotion and feeling than pure logic than was first thought, however much we might kid ourselves the opposite is true. Acknowledging and investigating this must therefore be an important part of your commitment to leadership and learning.

You can read Kennedy’s full speech on Leadership and Learning here.

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