Learning: The unavoidable habit every leader must master

When the co-founder and once CEO of Infosys arrived home from the office guess what he’d do? This high-powered executive sometimes chose to clean the family toilet. 

Learning from Gandhi, the billionaire took on tasks beneath his station. It was a visceral reminder that all contributions to society have value. This CEO found learning helped maintain his humility. It ensured he stayed closer to ordinary people and their concerns.

Learning is a crucial leadership habit. Those without it are at risk of mediocrity and obscurity. Continuous learning is now urged on all business leaders. It’s become something of a business cliché. No self-respecting CEO or senior manager admits to ignoring the learning imperative. Yet this habit is more often taken for granted than actually practiced.

For example, as a leader do you learn from failure? This is one of the most important capacities for people and companies to develop. Learning from success too tends to be low down on a leaders’ list of things to do. Yet success can be deceptive and prevent learning, due to:

  • Wrong attribution
  • Over confidence bias
  • Failure to ask why syndrome

The first of these celebrates success as due to the leader’s own talents. Rather than take into account the part played by environmental factors and random events.

The second obstructs learning through over confidence. It generates a false self-assurance. This can lead to the wrong conclusion that nothing needs changing much.

The third inhibits learning through promoting ignorance.  Sakichi Toyoda, father of the Japanese
industrial revolution and founder of Toyota Industries Co., Ltd invented the 5 Whys  in the early 1900s.

This method encourages a leader to keep digging deeper. It seeks to explain what is happening in any business situation and to get to the real root of a question or a problem.–see panel on the right. 

Diary Check

Inspect the diary of a top leader and the days worked will be around 17 hours. They’ll be replete with meetings. Less obvious will be the time spent preparing for those meetings.

Simple assumptions about leaders suggest they’re too busy to learn. They’re assumed to spend most of their time on action. Yet many business leaders invest in reflection, self awareness and in personal growth.

Apart from the demands to learn, business leaders face a monstrous maze of free advice on how to do their job. Streams of “how to” nuggets pour into the maze daily. 

Most so-called advice stems from people who have never actually led an organisation in their life. Despite confident assertions, business leadership never comes down to “the six (seven, or n) things all leaders must do, or avoid.”

No wonder some of the best business leaders wonder: “how can I ever become the kind of leader I’m supposed to be?” As for being an ethical leader, it’s even tougher. Instead, any half-way competent business leader gets good at asking questions.


IT pioneer Michael Dell was once invited to name the one attribute CEOs need most to succeed in the future. He replied:

“I would place my bet on curiosity. With curiosity comes learning and new ideas, If you’re not doing that, you’re going to have a real problem.”

Dell was responding to a 2015 PwC survey of more than a thousand CEOs. Many cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as critical in challenging times. Another respondent, the CEO of McCormick & Company noted that business leaders who succeed:

“Are always expanding their perspective and what they know—and have that natural curiosity.”

It’s hardly news that curiosity can be good for business and even better for the leaders. Walt Disney for example, once declared his company kept innovating because

“We’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”

In a fast changing, innovations-driven world, it becomes vital to keep exploring “new paths”.  A leader unwilling to learn will avoid asking ask tough questions. 


Nothing teaches as much as finding things out for yourself–to experience the challenge and pleasure of honest feedback. So the best leaders have no love for silos.

Many previously trendy management terms have died a natural death. But silos and the problems they pose remain. Departmental silos tend to be a growing pain for most organizations of all sizes.

Executive leaders need to equip their teams with the proper mind-set to recognize and break down this destructive organizational barrier. 

For example, some of the most common pathways to learning appear in the panel on the right. There are many others and these includeboost leadership and learning

  • Risk taking: using the chance to lead and learn
  • Stretching: going beyond one’s personal comfort zone
  • Trusting: relying on others to build a reputation for being trustworthy
  • Adapting: the ability to act to different situations
  • Integrating: having the capacity to see and understand the big picture

Leadership can be learned. But it demands a strong commitment to ongoing development and collaboration. And if there’s a knack to learning it’s making time for the hard work continual learning demands.

For example, a new CEO of a major firm sought a better awareness of areas that affected the lives of his employees.. He therefore took the trouble to block out three or four hours every morning for several weeks to make space for this learning.

How best can a CEO put learning to work? Here are some useful questions to trigger personal growth and learning:

  1. Where do I stand in seeking development?
    Review your strengths and weaknesses and relate them to the organisation. Write them down and check them out with others.
  1. What could I learn?
    First, what will help bolster your strengths, and up your performance. Second what will help grow you as a leader? And third, what excites you?[spacer height=”20px”]
  2. Am I using my passion?
    Make sure you’re using your passion at work, and that its bringing you in touch with like-minded individuals[spacer height=”20px”]
  3. What can I teach so I can learn?
    A sure way to learn is to teach it. Find someone whose curiosity dovetails with yours. Choose a person with more knowledge and/or skills. Mentor this person. Pass on what you know. Engage. Give back. [spacer height=”20px”]
  4. Where should I disrupt the status quo?
    Seek out places where some fresh thinking would be useful. Begin exploring the benefits of change.[spacer height=”20px”]
  5. How can I get out of the bubble? 
    When we’re exposed to new information our curiosity gets going. Seek out new influences, ideas and experiences that may fire up your desire to learn more and dig deeper. [spacer height=”20px”]
  6. Is my curiosity starting conversations where I can learn? 
    A leader who doesn’t encourage others to challenge their thinking isn’t a leader, they’re a dictator.[spacer height=”20px”]


L.Brown et al, Exploring the relationship between learning and leadership, Leadership and organisational development journal, Nov 2001
Seijts, Good leaders never stop learning, Ivy Business Journal, August 2013 F. GinoGary and P. Pisano, Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success Harvard Business Review, April 2011
W.Berger, Why curious people are destined for the C-suite, Harvard Business Review, Sept 2015
Leaders and learning: the need for constant evolution, Applied Corporate Governance
J. Zook, The Theory of The 3 Whys, Inc , Jan 2015














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