Nelson Mandela and Arnold Schwarzenegger have an important trait in common: they dedicated their lives to lifelong learning.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger was an immigrant to the U.S., who earned his college degree through continuing education, became an investment entrepreneur, and eventually governor of California.
- Nelson Mandela wrote in his biography Long Walk to Freedom, ‘almost as a learning story’. Said Mandela, ‘These are my teachers, this is what I learned and, as a result, this is who and what I have become’.
Both were disruptive leaders. As we pointed out in our blog about the 7 traits of disruptive leaders, disruptive leaders ‘are often lifelong learners’. As such, they continually ‘find insight and inspiration in unexpected places’. They are relentless practitioners of analytical and critical thinking, which take them beyond day-to-day management into the realm of inspirational leadership.
What is leadership?
Leadership is both a skill and a talent. Leaders recognise the need for focusing and planning, rather than concentrating on labour-intensive activities. The good leader knows that the labour-intensive activities must be left to the experts.
Those experts — the managers — may in some respects be smarter than the leader. It is the realisation that all that knowledge exists that motivates the best leaders to continue their quest for lifetime learning.
The difference between leadership and management
The difference between leadership and management has a classic illustration in American history. The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 had its visionary leader, President Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson did nothing much more than provide the overall vision (and financing) for the exploration of the newly acquired American west. Jefferson’s expedition ‘managers’, Lewis and Clark, were in many respects smarter than Jefferson.
Lewis and Clark were Jefferson’s managers. They specialised in organising and commanding the ambitious expedition into the vast American hinterland. They managed the details, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Making a commitment to lifelong learning
Leaders can hone their leadership qualities and leadership skills through leadership training for career development. However, a commitment to lifelong learning requires an unrelenting dedication and discipline.
Many leaders are already at the top of their profession. To remain there they need to be lifelong learners. The process requires a proactive sensitivity to sources of learning. Their ‘teachers’ can be the professionals who work for them or interesting and talented people they encounter throughout their personal and professional lives.
The best leaders realise, without false humility, what little they know. They reach out to the resources within and outside of their organisation and learn all they can. It is a commitment. Mark Sanborn articulates that commitment in his online article, Learn Like a Leader. According to Sanborn, that commitment includes:
Making enquiry, investigation, and professional curiosity a way of life
Leaders who are lifelong learners know instinctively that reading and studying feed the foundation of professional and leadership competence.
Asking the intelligent questions from a variety of people
People in the know are usually willing, and often flattered, when those they admire ask them questions. Lifelong learning can accrue from serendipitous encounters that glean useful information and innovative practises. Those enquiries can be a treasure trove of ‘connecting the dots’, which are the foundation of lifelong learning.
Knowing the difference between treasure and rubbish—thinking for themselves
A healthy scepticism is the product of both critical and analytical thinking. The latter occurs from a lifetime experience; the former—critical thinking—separates the best ideas from what Will Rogers once described as ‘what we know that ain’t so’.
Distinguishing the easy solutions from the real ones
Lifelong learners continue to distrust the convenient and conjecture-laden solutions. Lifelong learning is a quest for the truth. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient and offers a more troublesome solution. That approach requires critical thinking and seeking factual information beyond speculation and conjecture.
Honing their leadership skills for a future that will require new approaches
Leaders who are lifelong learners refuse to stop learning. They study for the future because they see an ever-changing present. They know that the life skills they hold are foundational only. To be up to future challenges, learning must continue. It is fine to learn from one’s past mistakes, but not everything should be learned that way.
Knowing what is most important and focusing on learning it quickly
Another one of Patton’s many favourite expressions was ‘Know what you know and know what you do not know.’ Patton knew that quickly mastering the difficulties of war depended on filtering out the minutiae. What remained was the truly important.
Lifelong learners concentrate on what is most important and disregard the irrelevant. They strive to get up to speed as quickly as possible. That speed is the key to staying ahead of the competition.
Seeing lifelong learning as a continuing education process—and making a plan
Leaders who are lifelong learners make their own education plans. A vacuum in their knowledge base is their call to action. They control the flow of learning and decide what to learn and how much. Whether their learning agenda is a basic reading list or plans for formal leadership training, they always have an agenda.
The best leaders are lifetime learners. They:
- value enquiry and critical thinking over conjecture and consensus
- focus on continual self-improvement
- learn what is important and do so quickly
- combine confidence with humility when it comes to improving their knowledge
Finally, leaders who are lifelong learners know one important thing: Lifelong learning is the key to continual self-improvement, long life, and staying on top of their game.