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3 Keys to Accelerating Leadership Development at Warp Speed

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

~ Star Trek Original Series ~

In Star Trek, Captain Kirk often dramatically directed “Warp drive, Mr. Scott!” The camera went in tight on Mr. Scott’s hand as he pushed the accelerator forward, and the Enterprise jumped out of sight to another distant galaxy, faster than the speed of light. The world of business today seems very similar to the universe depicted in the famous TV and movie series. Adaptive challenges, complex problems, volatile business environments – these are just some of the circumstances business leaders increasingly find themselves in, placing unprecedented demands on their capabilities to be effective.

Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with actual Tribbles or Klingons, but it is enough of a struggle to keep up with the challenges of changing markets and conditions. Our world is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), and as a result leaders are struggling with major challenges they have never had to deal with before. They must be able to quickly size up people and situations, make tough decisions and take appropriate action without complete information, and flexibly change on the fly in order to produce results in new, demanding, first-time situations. Leaders are in the business of boldly leading others where no one has gone before, and that puts a premium on their ability to deal with the unknown.

When you go where no one has gone before, you inevitably encounter things no one has encountered before. Succeeding in such conditions requires leaders to accelerate their ability to learn from experience, to actively and intentionally learn from every experience. They must apply what they are learning to new challenging situations, and continue learning as they go forward. Unfortunately, the ability to learn from experience is a capability that many leaders either take for granted or ignore outright. However, the leaders who adopt a learning mindset and who consistently practice the skills and tactics of learning from experience are significantly better equipped to deal with the complexities and challenges of modern business life.

“Experience is the best teacher.” How many times have we heard that, or said it ourselves? When it comes to developing as a leader, it is widely held that experience is a central component. Unfortunately, having an experience does not guarantee learning from it. Many people do not learn from experience, because they lack the knowledge and skills needed to do so. Research has shown that providing opportunities and challenging assignments to leaders doesn’t automatically result in their development. A study by Fiedler actually found that longer leader tenure and experience was negatively correlated with team performance. Many leadership and learning researchers have found that learning from experience is not a passive process, but requires an approach to living that makes learning one’s primary and most important focus. It may be true that experience is the best teacher, but only for those who actively utilize specific learning strategies and skills to derive the lessons of experience.

The problem is that most of us live our lives on “automatic pilot,” making little or no effort to learn from our experiences. Have you ever gone through your workday, running from meeting to meeting, and suddenly discovered that the day is over and you don’t recall anything you did or said? We all develop patterns or habits of behavior that make it easier and simpler to go through life, without having to think about things every single time. This phenomenon is called “automaticity,” when you can perform a skill without having to consciously think about it. However, this also hurts us because it leads to our sleepwalking through valuable experiences that hold hidden learning, if only we could notice! The speed of business makes it extremely difficult to break the habit patterns that we use to move at pace through our workdays. If we assume that learning happens automatically, and give little thought or energy to learning or improving our learning capability, then we are probably missing out on opportunities to learn, grow, and develop as leaders.

Three Keys to Accelerating Leadership Development at Warp Speed

For leaders to effectively deal with the unknown challenges ahead, they need to accelerate their capability to learn from experience at warp speed. Keep in mind these three keys: (1) Adopt a Learning Mindset, (2) Take action to learn every day, by applying Learning Practices, and (3) Synergize – combine the power of your mindset and your actions.

1 - Adopt a Learning Mindset

A mindset is a habitual or characteristic mental attitude that determines how you will interpret and respond to situations. In the context of learning from experience, Learning Mindset is an attitude that predisposes you to be open to new experiences, to believe you can and will learn, and to intentionally grow and develop from your experience. It includes the set of assumptions and beliefs that govern how you think about and approach experience and opportunities, and whether you generally see them as opportunities to learn and develop, as well as your typical affective stance toward learning, your emotional state or feeling about learning, learning situations, and new experiences.

It’s helpful to think of Learning Mindset as a set of prescription eyeglasses through which you view the world and your experience. If I operate with a mindset that leads me to view work projects or tasks as things that I need to do in order to fulfill my job responsibilities and to succeed, then I will most likely focus on producing the desired results “on time and under budget,” using my current knowledge and skills to accomplish the goal. Now, these are good things to achieve. But if I operate with a Learning Mindset, that leads me to view work projects and tasks as opportunities to learn something new, then I will focus on expanding my current knowledge and skills as I take creative action to produce the desired results. The conceptual lens of Learning Mindset leads you to see every experience as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop.

I have found that leaders who have a Learning Mindset see opportunities to learn in all aspects of their work life, and tend to learn more than those who are closed to learning. Research has shown that leaders whose attitude or stance toward learning embodies…

  • A belief in their own learning and growth potential

  • Openness to experience

  • Motivation, willingness, and desire to learn

  • Curiosity about others and how they do what they do

  • An attitude of discovery and exploration

  • An intention and willingness to gain something positive from experience

… experience more growth and development than leaders who do not have this attitude toward learning.

As you might expect, Learning Mindset (attitude) leads to Learning Practices (actions).

2 - Apply Learning Practices

“What can I do to ‘get better’ as a leader?” This is a question that leaders frequently ask after receiving 360-degree feedback or attending a training program. It’s one thing to know that you need to “think more strategically” or improve at “giving performance feedback and coaching” to your direct reports. It’s something completely different to translate that down to practical actions that you can take to bring about lasting change, growth, and development.

Since most of us spend over 90% of our work time working, not in training programs or workshops, time on the job represents our best and most accessible opportunity to learn: from our day-to-day experience. We just need to know how to use our experience to grow and develop. This is where the Learning Practices come in.

Learning Practices are actions you can take to accelerate and enhance your learning from experience. Your actions determine whether you proactively pursue learning in your day-to-day work life, or focus only on getting the job done. Leaders who consistently and rigorously use the Learning Practices learn significantly more, faster while achieving better results. The following ten key learning practices have significant potential for growing and accelerating your ability to learn from experience:

  1. Take responsibility for your own learning and development

  2. Approach new assignments/opportunities with openness to experience and positive intention to learn

  3. Seek and use feedback

  4. Develop a clear understanding of your strengths and areas of development

  5. Ask great questions and demonstrate curiosity

  6. Listen transformatively (intently, deeply, empathically)

  7. Respond to experience with adaptability and flexibility

  8. Actively reflect and practice mindfulness

  9. Actively experiment with new approaches to learning

  10. Closely observe and learn from others

Synergize – Combine the Power of Your Mindset and Your Actions

Adopting and maintaining a Learning Mindset while consistently and rigorously putting the Learning Practices into action is the “Warp Drive” accelerator of leadership development. As you face the challenges of leading in today’s world of increasing complexity, rapid change, and rising uncertainty (even without Tribbles or Klingons), the most effective leaders have the ability to transform their experiences into growth and development. And the greater the challenge, the more significant is your opportunity to develop as a leader.

If you have a Learning Mindset and consistently and rigorously put the Learning Practices into action, you will learn significantly more, faster, and as a result you’ll perform at a higher level and create greater value for your company and for yourself. And if that’s what you want, now you know what you need to do!

Live long and prosper!

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