Competence #4 – Ambitious learning

Playing almost his entire 19 year long career at the New York Yankees, Lawrence Peter Berra, whom we know as Yogi, has become a classic example of colorful management. On the field he was a catcher and an outfielder. Off the field his career as a manager has yielded some of baseball’s and American culture’s most colorful quotes. Many of them directly apply to the field of leadership. Consider:

“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Good advice for decision-making and decision makers.

“If you don’t know where you’re going you might end up someplace else.”  Visionaries know how true that is.

And the one that directly applies to my topic today, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

I’ve been discussing the personal competencies of a superlative leader. I spent some time on the subject of purpose and drive, on demonstrating ethics and integrity, and on serving as a symbol. This is number 4, ambitious learning.

4 things to know about ambitious learners

Superlative leaders are never content to know what they know, they want to know what they don’t know. Theirs is a forward and outward look, scanning the horizon and the setting for information that can yield insights into the way their associates work, into the forces that shape the marketplace, and how to be ready for tomorrow and the day after that.

They are students of human nature and human motivation. I’ve said before and it bears repeating here, that there is almost never a motivation issue but there is often a leadership issue. Effective, superlative leaders know who they work with and why those people do what they do. Superlative leaders never assume, never classify people too quickly, and always are sensitive to keys and clues about who does what and why they do it.

Possess a keen sense of observation. How quickly do you pick up on things? Can you spot the dynamics that are at play in the group you work with? Are you even looking for them? I am assuming here that you are not emotionally insecure and are not always scanning for reassurance. I am also assuming that you want to maximize your influence without being overbearing and demanding. If you do, then a keen sense of observation is critical. Clues to what’s going on are everywhere if you can spot them. Yogi Berra is correct, you can observe a lot by just watching.

Finally, superlative leaders are big buyers of non-fiction. They know how the game is played, but they want to know what others have learned about how the game is played. They study their field of work and they study general works on leadership and management. They know that learning did not cease when the diploma was bestowed upon them.

Competence is not a state of ignorance. It is the exact opposite. You don’t stumble into positions of responsibility and remain there for long if you are not a learner.

9 characteristics of an effective learner:

  1. Curiosity – you want to know what you don’t know when you become aware that there is something you don’t know and you are often curious to know if there is something else you should know even if you don’t know what it might be. Well, you get the idea.
  2. Diligence – attention to detail and persistent effort mark effective learners. They dig and dig deeply.
  3. Work – they have fun and enjoy their careers, but they know that learning is not always fun. Sometimes it’s just plain work, especially when the learning curve is steep.
  4. Logic – they can put 2 and 2 together and come up with four. They understand implications, usually without explanations. They get it and get it readily.
  5. Persistence – failure happens but superlative leaders who are ambitious learners never go just so far and stop because they were embarrassed or burned by a past experience. They keep going and they keep learning.
  6. Adaptability – one major leader says that “Shift happens.” He knows that what he once knew may not always hold up under what he now knows.
  7. Personalization – they internalize and apply what they learn. They put it into their context. They extract principles from one setting and apply those principles in their setting.
  8. Mentoring – superlative leaders bring others along. They share what they’ve learned with others. The best students are almost always effective teachers.
  9. A listening ear, inquiring mind, and a closed mouth – knowledge comes from seeing and hearing, not by talking. Most leaders love to hear themselves talk, and to be fair, much of leadership manifests itself by what we say, but learners know when to look and listen, too.

I’m halfway through my 64th orbit around the sun and I know less now than I ever. But I also know that I know more than I used to. So do you.

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