A True Leader Approaches Learning Like Dirty Dishes

true leader

A true leader is humble enough to realize they don’t know it all and that it is imperative to continually seek out new knowledge. That’s why Linda Huett, former President and CEO of Weight Watchers International believes that learning is like dirty dishes—“You never finish in terms of your own development,” she said. “No matter what you’re appointed, you are still just learning, and you’ve got as much to learn from the people who work for you as you’ve got to give them.”

A true leader learns from a variety of sources. During interviews with 27 of the nation’s most successful CEOs and Presidents for my book True Leaders, leaders revealed that they are avid readers of books; they listen to audiotapes; they seek out advice from experts, peers, and mentors and they even resort to sage advice given by parents. They openly embrace a process of self-discovery and view most mistakes as learning experiences. Interestingly enough, they even glean powerful lessons from bad examples.

A True Leader…

Learns from the experienced

David Novak, Chairman and CEO of TriCon Global restaurants claimed that every person he has ever worked for has invested in him and he in them. Novak believes that individuals are a product of what they are exposed to. “If you stay among the same group of friends or the same company without getting outside of your industry, you will become very limited in your thinking,” Novak explained. He reads everything he can about leadership and he takes advantage of the opportunity to meet experienced peers who he can also learn from. So, he learns from experienced business associates and then passes the learning on to his own team of leaders. “I get to meet people—do things, go places—that most people will never ever get to do. So I think what I need to do is share it—not just keep it for myself—give credit where credit is due and share it.”

Learns from bad bosses

Unlikely as it may sound, many of the successful CEOs and Presidents interviewed actually learned from what Ann Hambly calls “reverse mentoring.” Hambly, once Managing Director of Prudential Asset Resources and now President of her own firm, 1st Service Solutions, said she had a lot of reverse mentoring. “I’ve had a few bosses that treated me in such a way that I will never, ever treat an employee like that,” she said. Hambly learned from these negative examples and made a promise to herself that she would never be that kind of a boss.

Learns from quotes and tapes

Terri Bowersock is dyslexic. She learned the hard way that even with learning disabilities, people can be successful if they believe in themselves and have the courage to find new ways to learn. Bowersock’s disability was not recognized during her early learning years. Although she learned to fake her way through high school, she could never make it at college. But she didn’t let that stop her. After visiting a family friends small consignment store, Bowersock had a dream. She drew the plans for her business dream with crayons and pictures because she couldn’t write a business plan.

With her dream, her pictures, and a $2,000 loan from her grandmother, Terri Bowersock opened her first consignment store in Phoenix, Arizona. Today she operates a multi-million dollar owned and franchised company and hired a CEO and a CFO for the things that require their respective kinds of education. She laughs about the fact that she doesn’t have a business degree. “What I do have is a BMW degree,” she says with a smile. “That’s because in my car (a BMW, of course) I’m never without a cassette.” That’s how Bowersock continues to learn—by listening to tapes of success stories about other entrepreneurs.

Learns from mistakes

A true leader realizes that facing up to mistakes can be great learning opportunities. Linda Huett says that far too often leaders look for scapegoats when a mistake is made. “Usually it isn’t any one individual’s fault anyway,” she says. “We all make mistakes. We try not to have them, and we certainly don’t do them intentionally.” Living up to mistakes, talking about them, and facing reality helps the learning process she says. “Learning from the mistakes is what’s really important,” she says.

true leaderA true leader certainly continues their learning by attending more formalized educational programs, as well. Some attend special executive think tanks; some attend special educational programs or seminars conducted by collegiate scholars or CEO peers. But, for the most part, the learning continues in a variety of less formal ways. Leaders even learn from humility rather than enlarged egos as one CEO so succinctly put when he recommended, “Don’t breathe your own exhaust.” So, like dirty dishes, learning is never quite finished. There is always learning to be done—through books, tapes, good bosses, bad bosses, peers, even mistakes. True leaders know that in a world of constant change, one thing remains unchanged—there is always something new to be learned if you are humble enough to admit it and courageous enough to seek.

How open are you to keep on learning? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are your mentors?
  • What other leaders are you learning from?
  • What do you do to demonstrate your commitment to continual learning?
  • How humble are you are about things to be learned?
  • What do you do to share what you have learned?
  • Who are you not taking time to learn from that may provide unexpected knowledge?


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