“We now know that the source of wealth is something specifically human: knowledge.” – Peter Drucker
Disraeli once said that all other things being equal, the person who succeeds will be the person with the best information. For leaders, learning isn’t an academic pursuit. Leaders learn not just to know more but to be more. Learning is a critical means to an important end. It is how they find the ideas that fuel their ongoing improvement. Here’s how they do it:
1. Leaders make investigation and inquiry a way of life.
Americans spend more money each year on beer than the do on books. “This explains,” says Pastor Rick Warren, “why our bellies are bigger than our brains.”
Theodore Levitt said, “The future belongs to those who see opportunities before they become obvious.” The best know that the future belongs to those who can understand and prepare for it more thoroughly than others.
In their classic book, “Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus said that leaders are readers. Being a reader won’t necessarily make you a leader, but the leaders they studied were committed to reading as a means of personal and professional enrichment.
Leaders read voraciously. My friend Bill Byrne was on the cover of Fortune magazine as one of America’s 1% wealthiest. A successful entrepreneur, Bill credits much of his success to his 15/15 program: He read 15 hours a week for 15 years.
2. Leaders ask more and better questions of more and different people.
In a parking lot I recently observed a small child looking at a comb on the pavement. He looked inquiringly at his mother and said, “There’s a comb–why?” The comb represented a mystery to him. How had to ended up there? Had someone lost or discarded it?
Young children ask 300 – 400 questions each day. That may be overkill for you and me, but we could all benefit from persistent inquiry about matters that are relevant and important to us.
Leaders practice The Alexandria Principle. During the Hellenistic era (330 B.C. – First Century A.D.), Alexandria, Egypt was the intellectual center of the world with more than a million people, a flourishing arts and literature scene and the greatest library anywhere in the world. What contributed to the cultural richness of the city? No ship was allowed to enter the port without surrendering its books to be copied.
The best emulate the ancient city of Alexandria. They query everyone who passes into their lives, hoping to identify new ideas, useful information and best practices that they can add to their own learning arsenal.
3. Leaders think for themselves.
“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts; it’s what we know that ain’t so.” – Will Rogers
Just because the best ask lots of questions doesn’t mean they accept what they learn at face value. They know the importance of thinking for themselves. Information received from any source is considered in terms of accuracy and implication.
One of the fundamental strategies of revolutionaries is to seize the schools and thus control what people think and believe. And it was Mark Twain who said, “Figures can lie and liars can figure.” Don’t accept things at face value. Learn to consider what you learn from a standpoint of healthy skepticism.
Information, by itself, has little value. It can even be dangerous if the conclusions you draw from it are someone else’s. As you learn, keep asking yourself “What are the implications for my career, my industry and my life?” Challenge what the source of the information is telling you to see if you reach the same conclusions.
4. Leaders choose critical thinking over the convenience of conjecture.
An important characteristic of the best is that they are those people who seek the truth; they want to act on factual information rather than speculation and conjecture. Conjecture–unfounded or inaccurate information–can be dangerous. You need to know the truth of the potential dangers of asbestos before you buy an old home for your family to remodel and live in. You need to know the truth of about how effective you are as a leader, and how you could get better. You need to know the truth about certain foods and how they affect your health. You need to know the truth about how customers feel about your service, or why your company has difficulty with vendors. Acting on rumor or hearsay diminishes your capacity to live well, personally and professionally.
And yet so much of our behavior is based on not on the pursuit of truth but the convenience of conjecture. A friend tips you off about a hot stock. “Buy now,” he says, “because the price will rise quickly.” A little research and analysis would confirm or disprove his claims. But research is time-consuming work. He’s a good guy who wouldn’t tell you to buy the stock if it wasn’t a good deal. You choose the convenience of conjecture–and lose 30% of your investment.
The best learners are eternal skeptics, not because they don’t believe anyone or anything, but because they only want to believe what is true. Critical thinking requires continually asking three questions:
- How do I know this is true?
- Who says?
- How does it affect me?
5. Leaders learn in future tense.
Study for the future, not the past. Develop your learning agenda on what you will need to know to be successful, not what you use to need.
The try to anticipate what knowledge and skills will be important for the future. They are honest in their assessment of themselves.
You can learn for the future by identifying your limiting factors (or weaknesses) and your strongest assets (or strengths). Then consider:
You can’t count on your current strengths to necessarily serve you as well in the future.
Don’t worry about your weaknesses if they won’t be liabilities in the future (remember when you were required to understand computer programming in your college computing course? How useful is that today?)
In terms of future strengths (those things you’ll need to be able to do to lead and succeed in the years ahead: start developing them now.
6. Leaders learn the most important stuff the fastest.
“The future belongs not to those who learn best, but to those who learn fastest.” – Paul Zane Pilzer
Not that long ago, we defined an expert as somebody who knew the most about a given area. Their depth of knowledge and/or expertise accounted for their expertise. The problem was that it took time to learn and experience enough to truly be considered an expert. Then there was a secondary problem: no sooner had you become an expert in an area than what you have learned either changed or became obsolete. Suddenly, you knew the most stuff about something that wasn’t that useful or important. (An example: the experts in key card computing were displaced by new technology.) The potential problem with know something very well is that it could cease to be useful. It isn’t always possible to predict what skills will be needed in the future.
Today, an expert is the person who learns the most important stuff the fastest. That is, when an area of knowledge becomes important, the expert is able to a) recognize the importance of that knowledge and b) learn what’s most important about that area c) as fast as possible and d) update when needed or e) abandon when necessary. Practical expertise is a continually shifting skill set.
Don’t strive to know the most stuff about anything. But pay attention to what’s most important, in the present and near future. Then learn the most important of the most important as quickly as you can.
It’s not about learning the most stuff the best, it’s about learning the most important stuff the fastest.
7. Leaders design their own continuing education program.
Almost all of our formal education was determined for us by someone else. We had little if any input into what we learned. In college, you may have had “electives,” but the choices were limited to the approved curriculum.
As adults, we control the flow of our learning. We decide what we learn and how much. That means we need to design our own curriculum. Few people have any formal learning agenda.
Dr. Peter Drucker chose a new area of study every few years. In the process, he became an expert in areas outside his specialty of management. He is, for example, one of the world’s foremost experts on oriental art.
Each year, I choose 3 areas of study. Typically, two areas will be related to my professional interests and the other to my personal interest. One year I chose to study the topics of wisdom and accelerated learning for my professional interests and guitar for my personal interest.
What is your learning agenda?
8. Leaders listen to their intuition.
Intuition is a great bunk detector. For years, I’ve heard it said that public speaking is the #1 fear of Americans, ranked even higher than death. While I do not doubt that people fear speaking in public, my intuition tells me that if I hold a gun to your head and demand, “Give a speech or die!”, you’ll opt for the oration. So how does such research get misconstrued? I’ll offer my best guess: somebody designed a survey that asked people what they feared. Top of consciousness: public speaking. The odds of being called upon to speak in a staff meeting that day were significantly higher than being called upon to meet one’s maker. So public speaking got written down. Next question: what else do you fear? “Geez, I dunno….o.k., getting sick, dying…those certainly concern me.”
“In an age of information, only intuition can protect you from the most dangerous individual of all: the articulate incompetent,” says Robert Bernstein, former Chairman of Random House Publishing.
A good rule of thumb for the age of misinformation, if something doesn’t ring true intuitively, dig a little deeper. Here are some tips offs: “They say….” Who are they? “It has been said…” By whom? And did they know what they were talking about?” Try to find a source and determine if the source if credible. Not everything merits further research, but if there are significant implications based on a piece of research or suggestion, do some checking. When in doubt, check it out. It isn’t as convenient as conjecture, but you’ll be much better educated if you do.