The origin of leaders #3: Learning – Growing through the crucibles in your life

by Conor Neill on November 26, 2010

Stop.  Take a look around you.  Take a look at the people you work with, the people you meet at parties, even the people you just casually pass in the street.

How do they spend their days?

Most of them work.  They do some other activities as well. They sleep, eat, cook, hang out with friends, watch TV, play sport and some might play an instrument.  Nothing, however, comes close to the hours that they dedicate to work.

Now, honestly, how well do they do it?  Well enough to keep the job?  Maybe well enough to get a promotion every couple of years?  But are any of them great at what they do?  Truly world class?  Excellent?

Why?  How can they spend so much time at it, going through school, through university, maybe even an MBA, executive seminars, coaching, mentors, high-flyer programs…  but they are not great at what they do.

Why?  Some people have been working for 30, even 40 years.  After all these thousands of hours most people are no more than mediocre at what they do. This is sad.

Only two routes to get more done

There are two routes to double the output.  One is to work double the hours.  Instead of 4 hours, I give 8 hours.  I may get double the output.  It is unlikely.  The marginal utility reduces for each additional hour as tiredness and loss of focus become stronger.  There is also a physical limit to this approach.  I only have a limited number of hours in a day, in a week…  in a life.  So, I might increase today’s output by 20% or even 30% by adding hours, but this is not a healthy route.

Route two is to double the effectiveness of my hours.  How can I begin a process that continually increases the value of output of the hours that I give to a task or a job or a cause?

People who improve their effectiveness daily have two things in common:  they care about the outcome and they remain humble.

Care about the outcome

There is a Spanish saying that there is no good wind for a boat with no rudder.  Alice, when she reaches Wonderland asks White Rabbit “Which path should I take?”  White Rabbit replies “where are you going?”  Alice: “I don’t know.”  White Rabbit: “Then it doesn’t matter which path you take.”  Posts 1 and 2 in this series talked of Imagination and Ambition – about deciding and committing to a course of action, about clarity in what you seek to achieve.  If you don’t care where you are going, then effective learning is not going to happen.

Arrogance stifles growth, Humility enables growth

Learning requires change.  Change requires humility.  Humility does not come easily to successful people.  It did not come easy to me.

I was having drinks with a group of professors at IESE two weeks ago after playing football.  The conversation came around to “which program do you prefer to teach?”.  An MBA student at the table said “The MBA must be the best program to teach on.  Young, ambitious, successful people.  The senior director programs must be the hardest.  They must be so demanding.”

Alex said “No.  Years ago I preferred the MBA, but now I definitely prefer teaching the executive programs.  MBAs are typically 27, have done well in school, got to a top university, got a great job, done well, got into IESE MBA…  and believe they know everything.  The senior directors of 55 have learnt how little they really know.  They come humble.  They are aware of the value of education.  They come prepared and ready to apply the material into their lives.  The senior director programs are the most rewarding to teach.  MBAs are hard work”.

“Tinkering” and The Need for Deliberate Practice

The motto of the ActiveGarage is “Always tinkering”.  This is a great motto for this post on learning.  What is tinkering?  Playing with something.  Testing.  Changing inputs and looking to see what happens.

In school we do “book learning”.  We learn to memorize facts and to store those facts long enough to recall them during exams.

In life we do experiential learning.  We try, we fail, we reflect and we try again.  Tom Peters says that “the only source of good knowledge is bad experience.”  He is right.  The knowledge that a leader needs is not written in the textbooks.  It is not available from professors.  Textbooks, professors and gurus have there place.  They can help me make sense of my experience. Mentors, peers and coaches can play a crucial role in the process of experiential learning.  The can help me understand their experience.  However, there is no substitute for personal experience, for our own practice.

A science has been developing around the field of developing exceptional performance.  What leads to world class performance?  “Deliberate Practice.”

The 5 ingredients of Deliberate Practice and the 3 models of mastery is explored on The Rhetorical Journey blog.

Most problems we face in life are not solvable through thinking alone.  You have to try a few things and see how they work.  In business, you often have to try in a way that is visible to others.  Some of those others cannot wait to see you mess up and laugh at your attempt.  However you need the real world test in order to be able to reflect and refine your approach.  The person making 1% incremental improvements day after day will always beat the person looking to make a 40% improvement in one big step.  The humility of asking for help and sharing experience magnifies the value of the learning.

What do you think? Are you a “tinkerer?” How do you test and attempt incremental changes?

The next post in the series will combine Imagination, Ambition and Learning and look at what can only come from within a person.

Conor NeillConor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn
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