Active learning is one of the most powerful keys to leadership success. What are you learning today? The biggest challenge I hear from leaders in regard to personal development is that they’re just too damn busy to take care of their own learning and development. At the same time, they understand the importance of the development of the people they serve and insist that people in their care continue to learn and grow. As important as what you learn is that you’re learning––actively and and continually. What do I mean by this? It’s certainly important to continually expand your domain knowledge. You want to learn more about your job, your role, specific conditions relating to your function in the organization and so on. The problem is that at certain times, you’re more engaged in the task at hand than in learning something new. Particularly at these times, it’s important to keep your “learning chops” sharp. You do this by––learning.
Anything! Your brain does not differentiate between studying a new methodology for analyzing financial reports or studying a set of martial art techniques or scales on a guitar. What you’re brain is doing in all these scenarios, on the most fundamental level, is making connections. Through the process of learning and practice, your brain imprints, stores and recovers valuable information. To keep it simple, the more diverse your learning, the better your brain becomes at making connections.
Sometimes these connections lead to conclusions that may appear disparate, but an actually lead to innovative and remarkable solutions. Albert Einstein often credited his interest and passion in music for giving him the capability to reason about some of the most profound questions in science. He famously said, “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music.” A number of studies now show that actively learning to play an instrument rewires the brain in ways that make us better thinkers. Similar studies show similar results from sports. Most of these studies center on the academic performance of school age children, though recent work shows that continual learning and mental engagement can have a profound impact even on the elderly, particularly people with Alzheimer's disease. I would add that learning something outside of your professional domain can also be a powerful stress reliever. The break can lead to tremendous insights that might otherwise have gone undiscovered. This is why you sometimes have an epiphany at the gym after struggling with a problem unsuccessfully at the office. The bottom line is simple enough. When you improve yourself in any way, you increase your capacity to perform on the job as well. For leaders, there is another solid reason to actively seek out new opportunities for learning and training. As I said earlier, you likely insist that the people you serve continue to learn and grow as people and as professionals––right? Lead by example. There is nothing more inspirational to the people you serve than to see you engaged in the same process you’re asking of them. We see profound effects in workshops when supervisors and people on the front lines learn self-defense techniques together. On the surface, you can call this “team-building,” but it’s a bit deeper than that. Almost any shared experience can improve relationships just by providing some shared time. The real bonding happens when you see that someone you look up to, work for or follow is not just willing, but passionate and interested in the process of learning. But you’re busy, right? That’s the excuse I hear most often when I challenge leaders with the question that opened this article, “What are you learning today?” You cannot leave your own learning to chance. Active learning must be a discipline and must be prioritized. Learn for yourself. Make yourself better and you become a better leader––a more valuable resource to the people you serve. And learn to provide inspiration. There is nothing more motivating, engaging and inspiring to the people you serve than your example. If you want them to learn––you learn. If you’re going to talk the talk––walk the walk! I’ll leave you with a short story I shared in THE SENSEI LEADER: When I got my Black Belt, my Master gave me a brand new belt. It was a deep, rich shade of black. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
He told me that if I continued my life as a martial artist, I would tie and untie that belt thousands of times. I’d be dragged around the floor in it. Over the years that belt would be drenched in buckets of blood and sweat—and even a few tears.
Eventually, he said, that belt would start to fade and wear out. That deep black outer-layer of fabric would fray and tear away. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Our belts wear out as time goes on. The black covering frays exposing another belt at the core. Underneath the black cover, the belt is white—the color of our very first rank.
This reminds us to keep what we call––
Beginner’s Mind is an enthusiastic sense of wonder and curiosity. It means approaching each new day as an opportunity to learn, grow and develop.
You see—the mind of the true Master is really the mind of the beginner.
Wisdom is not a static state—it’s an ever-expanding cycle of discovery. That’s why it’s so important to keep our hunger for new learning alive and well fed.
Our worn out, threadbare belts might tell others that we’ve been around a while. They remind us that no matter how far we’ve traveled, there is always another journey ahead.
One of the Masters I admired most was Professor Nick Cerio. Professor Cerio taught that the true meaning of the Black Belt was simply the development of good learning attitude.
By earning a Black Belt, you learn how to learn.
The Professor’s belt was worn to a thread.
One day I heard someone joke with the Professor saying, “Hey Professor, when are you going to get a new belt?”
He shot back, “Never! They’ll put me in the box with this one!”
As far as I know, they did.
The Professor was a very wise man.