Today, the challenge for leaders at every level is no longer just to out-hustle, out-muscle, and out-manoeuvre the competition. It is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future and help your organization get there before anyone else does. Which is why a defining challenge of leadership is whether you can answer a question that is as simple as it is powerful: Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?
Of course, learning new things is all about exposing yourself to new ideas. So if you want to learn faster, you’ve got to think differently about where new ideas come from. Here are a few ideas I’ve developed over the years about what turns leaders into learners — three “habits of mind” that will help you keep learning as fast as the world is changing.
First, the best leaders (and learners) have the widest field of vision.
You’re not going to learn faster (or deeper) than everyone else if you seek inspiration from the same sources as everyone else. Educators know that we learn the most when we encounter people, experiences, and ideas that are the least like us. And yet, we spend most of our time with people and in places that are the most like us — our old colleagues, our familiar offices, our reassuring neighbourhoods. If you want to learn faster, look and live more broadly.
Second, and more tactically, the best source of new ideas in your field can be old ideas from unrelated fields.
Often, it turns out, a powerful source of “totally new” ideas in one industry can be standard operating procedures from another industry — well-established practices that look downright revolutionary when you simply move them from one place to another.
Sure, there’s always a place for R&D as research & development. But there’s also a place for R&D as rip-off and duplicate. Ideas that are routine in one industry can be revolutionary when they migrate to another industry, especially when they challenge the prevailing assumptions and conventional wisdom that have come to define so many industries.
Finally, and most personally, successful learners work hard not to be loners. These days, the most powerful insights often come from the most unexpected places — the hidden genius locked inside your company, the collective genius of customers, suppliers, and other smart people who would be eager to teach you what they know if you simply asked for their insights. But tapping this learning resource requires a new leadership mindset — enough ambition to address tough problems, enough humility to be willing to learn from everyone you encounter. Nobody alone learns as quickly as everybody together.
We all want to be better leaders. And the best leaders, it turns out, are the most insatiable learners. How are you learning as fast as the world is changing?