The Leader-Learner-Trap

Successful people regularly report they are lifelong learners. I want to think that I am a lifelong learner too.

Shayne Elliott, CEO of the ANZ Bank recently shared in a LinkedIn video post that he is “#always learning“. In it, he speaks about a book that has provided great value over many years, Execution – The discipline of getting things done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. It is a terrific book and worth the read.

The ability to learn is essential for success. I argue that today, oxygen and learning are equally important for humans. Without them you are physically dead, or your career is dead. However, are followers tolerant of leaders who are learning? I’m not sure they are, which creates a significant problem for leaders.

For example, if something goes wrong at the ANZ Bank and Shayne turns to his shareholders, stakeholders, Board and staff and says, “Look, I don’t know what to do in this situation. I’m a fast learner, and with the amazing people in the team, I’m confident we can work out a solution as soon as possible.”, do you think his stakeholders will be happy?

By Ja_inter Getty Images

The odds are firmly stacked in favour of Shayne’s stakeholders NOT being happy. They would expect that for the pay he has been receiving, he should already know what to do.

This problem exists at all levels of leadership. And, the more senior you become, the greater in magnitude this problem becomes. Followers expect that their leaders, because of their title, position, experience and most of all, pay, should already know what to do when things go wrong. They believe that leaders should have previously known what to do in the first place so that whatever went wrong, would have never gone amiss either.

The tolerance for leaders to be #alwayslearning is very low.

This affects leaders in many ways. The most common effect is that leaders subconsciously associate their need for learning to be a sign they are incompetent. I’ve never met a single person who wants to be known for being incompetent.

The easiest way for leaders to avoid being seen as incompetent is to do the very opposite to what they ought to do. They do not share or admit they are learning. Instead, they blame others, seek scapegoats, get angry, persist with strategies that aren’t working and generally cause the situation to worsen.

An interesting phenomenon is that the more significant the learning opportunity due to the gravity of the error, the less likely learning is to take place. Ultimately, this isn’t great for the leader, their followers, or their organisation.

It is one thing to say that leaders need to be more emotionally intelligent, authentic and open about their learning, but it is an entirely different scenario when something goes wrong, and followers believe that the leader, “Should have known better.”

I call this the ‘Leader-Learner-Trap‘. While most people agree that leaders ought to be lifelong learners, the actual practice of being a lifelong learner often results in followers perceiving that their leader is incompetent. In turn, this drives down learning behaviours and drives up defensive routines. First described by Harvard University Professor Chris Argyris many decades ago, these are behaviours driven by a subconscious need to be seen as competent. It is a compelling need and will cause good people to behave poorly. Leaders become trapped; while they want to learn, they can’t be seen to be learning, because that would be a public admission that they didn’t know what to do in the first place, and were therefore incompetent.

What can be done?

There is no quick fix to the Leader-Learner-Trap. Here are three interdependent strategies you can implement.

  1. Validate learning as an essential element of every person’s role, including senior leaders. Have leaders regularly share stories that highlight what they have learned during crisis-free times. When crises do occur, the learning culture that has been established by these stories will help to minimise the knee-jerk blaming and avoiding that germinates from anti-learning behaviours.
  2. Create opportunities for diagonal slices of the organisation’s hierarchy to learn together, and be explicit about the fact that one’s title is to be left at the door when staff enter the learning room. When people learn together, on real organisational tasks, staff can see the actual value of learning for everyone, including senior leaders, and their tolerance for them to learn increases.
  3. Adopt the WD-40 philosophy established by CEO Garry Ridge, that there are never mistakes, only “learning opportunities.” This shared Mental Model requires a commitment to eliminate the word ‘mistake’ from your organisation’s vocabulary. Aaah, yes, I can hear you say, “What? Are you suggesting that it would be a mistake, to say the word mistake?”. No; I’m suggesting it would be a learning moment!

What is your experience of the Leader-Learner-Trap? Have you implemented strategies to overcome it, and if so, please share them in the comments below.

Gary Ryan helps talented professionals, their teams and organisations, move Beyond Being Good®

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