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Leaders: Study What Counts

If you are a dedicated leader, you are in learning mode all the time.

Are you studying what counts the most?

The summer is an excellent time to think about this: What do you spend the most time educating yourself about?

You can tell a lot about leaders by noticing what they are trying to learn.

Most leaders I work with have acquired subject matter or technical expertise. Meaning, they’ve worked hard to become experts in their chosen fields.

If you lead a construction company, you likely study construction.

Manufacturing firms study their products, inside and out.

Medical professionals study medicine.

Accountants study tax law and compliance.

If you sell apple juice, you probably know more about apples than the rest of us.

And so on.

It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, you commonly focus your learning there.

That’s necessary. And limiting.

Knowing a lot about your particular field does not make you a leader.

Almost every leader agrees: “We’re in the people business!” At least, they agree in principle.

As strange as it sounds, leaders typically don’t spend much time studying people. Many are too busy learning about their lines of work, and getting things done. This holds true, say, for police officers, religious leaders, and school administrators, as well as for family business owners, professional firm partners, and entrepreneurs.

When ambitious young adults first arrive on the doorstep of leadership, they soon discover that their expertise – what they’ve spent years acquiring – hasn’t prepared them for what leadership is all about.

Consider, for example, how the backgrounds of most leaders have short-changed their learning. Their “toolkit” often lacks crucial people skills:

  • How to build connection and mutual respect with direct reports and colleagues;

  • What to understand about human nature, emotional maturity, and its complexities;

  • When to listen and when to talk;

  • How to take a clear position when the rubber meets the road;

  • How to communicate humility and confidence at the same time;

  • How to make tough decisions, such as firing a person you like who can’t do the work;

  • When to compromise and when to draw the line;

  • How to ask growth-provoking questions;

  • How to manage that influential companion called anxiety;

  • How to prepare others for leadership.

This list only begins to describe the competencies required for exceptional leadership.

These aptitudes don’t get taught – or get taught poorly – in our esteemed learning academies. In companies and nonprofits, it’s not much better. That’s a big problem.

If you’re among the lucky few who know your way around the bullet points above, you probably learned those skills in your family growing up. Or in the school of hard knocks.

Relationship learning is important, because when leaders acquire people instincts and skills, their influence reaches far beyond the workplace, into their own families and communities.

It’s no exaggeration to claim that relationship wisdom changes the world.

The good news is that the pathways for learning how to relate to and lead people – most especially your children and your direct reports – pass through a single door.

It’s a door that helps a leader take on the relationship challenges of life, instead of avoiding them. It’s the primary door that shows a leader how to walk their talk.

On this door hangs a sign: “The Way of Self-Knowledge.” Through this portal, a leader studies self by considering life-defining questions:

  • What do I really know about myself?

  • What do I want to learn about my parents, grandparents, extended family, and ancestors?

  • Where do my beliefs come from? Do they make sense?

  • What am I most afraid of?

  • What do I want so badly that I would sacrifice greatly for it?

  • What principles will guide the rest of my life?

  • Who do I talk to about all this?

Though it promises self-confidence and the underpinnings of deep insight, The Way of Self-Knowledge happens to be one that many leaders find distasteful. Most would rather shun it than embrace it.

Why? Because they know, perhaps intuitively, that walking through this door requires time, energy, and a stream of uncomfortable questions.

It’s easier to be an expert.

It’s easier to tell people what to do.

It’s easier to pretend you’re wise, when you are merely smart.

When it comes to learning, walking The Way of Self-Knowledge takes courage.

The payoff is huge. Studying self ultimately helps the people around you function at a higher level.

For example, employees and children often stop short of taking healthy risks because of fear. They don’t think that they can do it. They’re afraid of how others will react. They can’t handle disapproval, even when their decision is sound.

Your job, as a leader, is to help them overcome their fears. But it’s only when a leader has faced and worked through his or her own fears, that they can help others face trepidations.

Learning about self is the single most important prerequisite for high-caliber leadership. It’s the real deal.

No one can lead others to a place where they have not been.


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