Learning As A Leadership Skill
I was traveling last week and one morning at breakfast, I ordered huevos rancheros. It was served with the most beautifully cut avocado I had ever seen. It was perfect - every slice, every edge was flawless.
And I thought to myself, I want to learn how to do THAT. Immediately, there were dreams of how I would also expertly cut and serve other fruit like mangos, kiwis, and pineapples.
Stay with me, I’m headed somewhere with this...
So, I thought about how I could learn to do this (maybe by taking a knife skills class), and in this case, I knew what I wanted to learn and there was a way for me to do it.
Leadership Skills Benefit From Practice
When it comes to leadership skills, what we want (or need) to learn and how we begin, aren’t always so clear. Learning requires not just theory or understanding but also the chance to apply it. Just like learning to beautifully carve an avocado, kiwi, or pineapple practice is what sets this learning apart.
In his book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule, which is a catchy way of saying that if you put in the time and effort to practice a new skill, you’ll eventually become an expert.
Of course, there are other factors, and quality is just as important as quantity. An hour of practice on your own, for example, is not the same as an hour of practice with the guidance of an expert.
Here’s a list of 15 leadership skills we often don’t deliberately practice, but if we took the time to master, could transform our ability to lead:
- Emotional Intelligence
- Strategic Thinking
- Creating Accountability
- Conflict Resolution
- Decision Making
- Problem Solving
- Motivating Others
- Influencing Buy-In
- Time Management
It seems natural to practice when we’re learning a new sport or instrument or hobby, but we don’t always deliberately take a skill like communication and apply the same amount of dedication and commitment. We aren’t intentional about working with an expert, getting feedback, and then tweaking our approach.
Professional tennis player Serena Williams started practicing 3 hours/day (6 in the summer) when she was 3 years old and won her first grand slam when she was 17 (if you do the math, that’s closer to 20,000 hours). And orchestra members practice 20 hours/week as a group and an additional 3 - 4 hours/day on their own. But how often do leaders intentionally practice the skills that will make them great? (Psst: If you’re looking for a little motivation to get out and practice, we recommend watching the movie 'King Richard').
Choose One Thing To Focus On First
Before I was married and had kids, I would choose a topic every year to learn about and practice. One year, it was baking bread. Another was yoga. Another was making cheese.
Sometimes I was introduced to an activity by an article, a friend, or an event. In other cases, I learned how to do something because someone I loved was interested in it or because I needed to do something to get a specific result - like when my manager told me I needed to get an MBA to get to the next level at work.
And yet, more often than not, leaders choose what to learn because it’s suggested by someone else or as a reaction to the environment. They don’t necessarily take the time to sit back and create a personal learning strategy.
In talking to a mentee earlier this week, I was reminded that while getting my Organizational Development degree at Pepperdine, we had Strategic Learning Contracts (SLCs) where we would outline our learning goals and timelines. It was a way of helping us stay on track and stay accountable. While many organizations have an aspect of goal setting and annual performance reviews that touch on this, we can benefit by approaching our learning more deliberately and strategically.
Questions For You To Consider
- How do you embrace learning?
- How do you learn at home, in your community, with your interests AND what does it look like at work?
- Do you spend time practicing your technical skills?
- Is your learning composed of continuing education classes (CEUs) you need to keep up an accreditation?
- Do you spend time learning in an effort to keep up with changes in your industry?
- How intentional are you about what you actually want to learn?
- How deliberate are you about creating a career plan, working on your plan, and measuring your progress?
Progress Over Perfection
Lara Casey, the creator of PowerSheets and one of my favorite goal-setting experts, has the maxim of progress over perfection. It has served as a reminder and helped me make meaningful strides toward the things I want.
My monthly and quarterly goal-setting (which I’m doing soon in anticipation of a meeting with my accountability partner next week) helps me ask what I want to cultivate.
Lara advises us to choose an area of focus. When I look at these focus areas (one includes work and learning, another includes personal growth), then I can think through what’s important to me. When I look into the future and dream about what I want my life to look like (me serving beautiful plates of fruit, apparently), then I can design a strategy to get there.
What Leadership Skills Are You Learning?
We encourage you to take an hour every month to figure out what you want to learn or shift.
You might already know what you’d like the progress, intention, or end goal to be. For example, you may want to be more present, practice active listening, or engage in productive conflict.
If you’re not sure what you want to focus on, you could think about a person you admire and consider the mindset, attributes, or behaviors you’d like to emulate.
You could ask your manager, peers, a friend or a family member what they suggest. Or you could scroll back up to our list of 15 leadership skills to see if something there jumps out at you.
Once You’ve Decided What You'd Like To Focus On…
Take some time and explore different ways to learn. Perhaps you learn best by taking a hands-on approach. Maybe you prefer learning with a group so you can bounce ideas back and forth. Or maybe you prefer some self-study as a first step so you can soak up the theory before you apply it.
Our skills only improve when we find a way to apply what we’ve learned. That could mean practicing on the job, at home, or with a practice group. Then rinse and repeat.
It might help to write down your learning goals so you can clearly see the steps it will take to get from your current reality to the goals you’ve set for yourself.
It’s estimated that we make 35,000 decisions every day! You can help to lighten your mental load and stop thinking about how you “should” make time to learn or practice by simply adding it to your calendar.
We encourage you to share your goal with your manager (if you have one), a trusted peer, a close friend, or even your significant other. Having a discussion about it and making a commitment out loud can create accountability and help motivate you to keep making progress.
Learning is a lifelong process and sometimes we all need a little reminder that progress over perfection is what matters most. That little maxim has helped me make progress toward my learning goals. And I love it because it shifts the focus from mastery to the small steps we take every day to get there.
If you’d like support and accountability or a more structured approach to mapping out and making progress toward learning leadership skills, we invite you to explore our leadership development programs or executive coaching offers.