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 Management Minute


By Michael R. Fraser, PhD, CAE, Chief Executive Officer, AMCHP

Burnison’s twelfth absolute of leadership is learning and I agree that learning is indeed an important aspect of leadership. Part of leading is using what you know to do your job better and motivating those around you to achieve the mission of your organization. Part of leading also is realizing what you do not know and taking the steps to learn those things. Good leaders are constant learners: if you look at some of the best leaders out there you will see they have voracious appetites to learn and apply new knowledge to their work. Good leaders “take time to sharpen their axe” – rather than keep trying to chop down a tree with a dull axe. Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as saying, “If I had six hours to cut down a tree I’d spend four hours sharpening my axe.” How often do you “sharpen your axe” when approaching a new problem or challenge?

Another way we learn is by making mistakes. Failures, by definition, are things that did not work and frankly can be quite embarrassing. How many people want to admit to a mistake, or a failure, especially in this time of budget constraints and public scrutiny of everything they do as a leader? How many leaders see failing as part of their job? And yet learning from failure is one of the most important ways we learn and an important part of our experience as leaders. Give yourself permission to not know everything and try a few new things over the course of your day. Make a few mistakes and then take the opportunity to learn from them. Ask others on your team what they would have done differently, or engage in group problem solving, and learn from each other. You will be amazed at how much you learn together!

In our busy, hectic and stressful lives we rarely take the time we need to learn. Instead, we keep trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s learning. As leaders, we often see our titles or promotions as confirmation that of course we know everything we need to know to do our jobs well – but do we? How much better could we be if we were actively learning (and a little more humble) and using new knowledge to do even bigger and better things for our organizations? And how often do we cut training and professional development programs from our budgets as “nice to have” items versus critical costs of doing business in today’s information age? It is so short sighted to cut training and expect improved productivity and better results, and yet that is just what many resource strapped organizations have done in tough budget times.

As Burnison states, “what got you here won’t get you there.” One of the biggest insights I hear from new leaders is that they had no idea how much they didn’t know and how much they needed to learn to be effective in their new roles. The best of those new leaders always sees themselves as “new” and develops a voracious appetite to learn throughout their careers. Much of this learning is often done on one’s “personal time” – there is rarely time to participate in learning events at work given all the demands on us during our busy days. I use work-out time, plane trips, and my subway ride or drive to work to read or listen to leadership lessons on CD or “podcasts.” Making time to learn is critical but tough. Maybe your New Year’s resolution will be to learn more as a leader, even if it is short 20 minute bursts in the course of a day? Try it! It is only through learning and leading that we can move ourselves and our organizations forward.

[This is the twelfth installment in a continuing series on The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership by Gary Burnison. If you would like to get your own copy of The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership and follow along over the next few months, you can order it online via the AMCHP link to AMCHP receives a small royalty for all orders placed via this link. The opinions of the author, and of Mike, are their own and are not the official position of AMCHP.]