As you seek to learn and grow as a leader, let me give you some advice about how to approach the process. After more than three decades of dedicated, continual effort to learn and grow, I offer the following suggestions:
Invest in Yourself First
Most leaders want to grow their business or organization. What is the thing more than any other that will determine the growth of that organization? The growth of the people in the organization. And what determines the people’s growth? The growth of the leader! As long as people are following you, they will be able to go only as far as you go. If you’re not growing, they won’t be growing either that or they will leave and go somewhere else where they can grow.
Investing in yourself first may look selfish to some of the people around you. They may even criticize you for it. But if they do, they don’t really understand how growth works. When airline flight attendants explaining emergency procedures tell passengers to put their own oxygen mask on first before putting masks on their children, is that instruction selfish? Of course not! The children’s safety and well-being is dependent upon their parent being able to help them. As a leader, you are responsible for your people. They are depending on you! If you’re in no shape to lead well, where does that leave them?
If you look around, you can see a pattern at work in every area of life. Employees get better after their supervisor does. Kids get better after their parents do. Students get better after their teachers do. Customers get better after the salespeople do. Likewise, followers get better after their leaders do, it is a universal principle. President Harry Truman said, “You cannot lead others until you first lead yourself.” That is possible only if you invest in yourself first.
Be a Continual Learner
When a leader reaches a desired position or level of training, there is a temptation to slack off. That is a dangerous place to be. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, says, “The moment you stop learning is the moment you stop leading.” If you want to lead, you have to learn. If you want to continue to lead, you must continue to learn. This will guarantee that you will be hungry for ever greater accomplishments. And it will help you to maintain credibility with your followers.
One of the most influential people in the golf world for many years was Harvey Penick. The author of the best-selling Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime of Golf taught pro players such as Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Kathy Wentworth, Sandra Palmer, and Mickey Wright how to improve their games. When Crenshaw won the Masters in 1995, he broke down and cried afterward because Penick, his lifelong mentor, had recently passed away.
You may be surprised to learn that Penick was largely self-taught. For decades he carried around a little red book in which he jotted down notes and observations to help him improve his game. He was a continual learner. And every time he got better, so did the people he taught. Ironically, Penick never intended to publish his notes. He simply planned to hand the book down to his son. But people convinced him to publish all the lessons he had learned over the years. As a result, people are still learning from him and benefiting from his wisdom.
Successful people don’t see learning or achievement as a fixed destination to head for, and, having arrived, to settle into completed and finished. Not once have I heard someone who was a continual learner talk about looking forward to coming to the end of life’s challenges. They continue to exhibit an excitement, a curiosity, or a sense of wonder. One of their most engaging characteristics is their infectious desire to keep moving into the future, generating new challenges, and living with a sense that there is more to learn and accomplish. They understand that you can’t conquer the world by staying in a safe harbor.
What kind of attitude do you have when it comes to learning? I’ve observed that people fall into one of these categories. They live in one of three zones:
‘The Challenge Zone: “I attempt to do what I haven’t done before.”
The Comfort Zone: “I do what I already know I can do.”
The Coasting Zone: “I don’t even do what I’ve done before.”
Everyone starts out in the challenge zone. As small babies, we have to learn to eat, talk, and walk. Then we go to school and keep learning. But there comes a time in every person’s life when they no longer have to keep trying new things. This is a pivotal time. For some people it occurs pretty early in life. For others, it comes after they achieve some degree of success. That’s when they decide which zone they will live in: the challenge zone, where they will continue to try new things, explore and sometimes fail; the comfort zone, where they no longer take risks; or the coasting zone, where they don’t even try anymore. It’s a sad day when a person chooses to leave the challenge zone and stop growing. As Philips Brooks, the minister who spoke at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, asserted, “Sad is the day for any man when he becomes absolutely satisfied with the life he is living, the thoughts that he is thinking and the deeds that he is doing; when there ceases to be forever beating at the doors of his soul a desire to do something larger which he seeks and knows he was meant and intended to do.”
Create a Growth Environment for the People You Lead
The average person will try to pull down anyone around him who is working to rise above average. The road to success is uphill all the way, and most people are not willing to pay the price. Many people would rather deal with old problems than find new solutions. To be a lifelong learner, you had to get out of a stagnant environment and distance yourself from people who had no desire to grow. You sought out places where growth was valued and people were growing. It helped you to change and grow especially in the beginning of your journey.
If you are investing in yourself and have adopted the attitude of a continual learner, you may think you’ve done all you need to do in the area of personal growth. But as a leader, you have one more responsibility. You need to create a positive growth environment for the people you lead. If you don’t, the people in your organization who want to grow will find it difficult to do so, and they will eventually seek out other opportunities.
What does a growth environment look like? I believe it has ten characteristics. It is a place where the following things occur:
- Others are ahead of you.
- You are continually challenged.
- Your focus is forward.
- The atmosphere is affirming.
- You are often out of your comfort zone.
- You wake up excited.
- Failure is not your enemy.
- Others are growing.
- People desire change.
- Growth is modeled and expected.
If you can create a growth environment, not only will the people in your organization grow and improve, but people with great potential will knock down your doors to become part of your team! It will transform your organization.