Learning

learning – noun –  the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy
(source: Wikipedia)

If you want to get better at a thing, then you need to study it, to reflect on it and to take conscious action to bring about change. The process of learning is fundamental to leadership.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy

Personal study is fundamental to learning. If we want to learn, improve and see that reflected in real change in the workplace then we need to take learning seriously. Personal study is most effective when it is active rather than passive. Things we read can wash over us or might have an impact at the time, but as time goes by the impact seems less significant, the message gets diluted, becomes less clear and can eventually be forgotten altogether. To really learn something we need the concepts to become embedded in our long term memory. To do this we need to related it to other concepts to reinforce it. This requires active revision and relearning; going back and reflecting on the same material at another time and from another place.

This is what I hope to achieve through this website. I am not an expert on leadership. In fact I am just starting out on my conscious journey of learning, even though I do have some years of subconscious learning through experience and reflection. My objective is to use this site to document my study and to share it with anyone who is minded to accompany me on my journey. I have always found that I learn something much more deeply if I have to explain it to someone else. I hope that organising my thoughts into articles for this site, engaging and learning from those minded to leave comments will be a part of my learning journey.

I have been leading IT teams at work for about a decade. In the early days I was very much just doing what came naturally and imitating leadership styles I had witnessed in others. I probably got as much wrong as right, but hopefully I learnt from the experiences.

Experiential learning is an important way to learn. It is more likely to bring about long-lasting change. However, by necessity it takes time and is often hard won. Experiential learning without any grounding in the theory of leadership could also lead one down the wrong path.

Studies on animals have shown that positive feedback driven by random rewards can lead to more ingrained behaviour than that driven by deterministic (particularly those of B.F. Skinner). Combine this with the fundamental attribution error, whereby success is wrongly attributed to a behaviour of the individual rather than a circumstance outside the control of the individual, and this can lead to subconscious reinforcement of behaviours which the individual fully believes reap positive rewards when in fact they don’t.

We need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of repeating behaviours that appeared to work in the past if those behaviours were not actually responsible for the positive outcomes. I think part of the solution for this is to get an objective perspective on our leadership performance. Reflect on what went well; be realistic. How much was really down to your own opinion and how much down to circumstance or the contributions of others? Seek objective views from others.

In agile software development (though not unique to that field) there is a practice known as retrospectives. Encourage your teams to use retrospectives so they get used to the process of reflecting back and looking for ways to improve the performance of the team going forward.

360° feedback is also a really useful tool for getting another perspective. Don’t be tempted to implement feedback mechanisms for your teams then ignore their feedback on yourself. Value feedback from your followers as precious gems. Honest feedback is priceless and if you don’t consider it and act on it, the well will dry up and you will get nothing more than empty platitudes in the future.

The feedback that you most want to dismiss is the feedback you should consider most deeply. It is all too tempting when someone gives us feedback we don’t like to find excuses or reasons why they have misunderstood. When the feedback makes us angry it is usually because they have hit the nail on the head and we don’t want to accept our own weaknesses. Treasure the feedback which makes you angry and brings a flush to your face. Don’t act on it quickly. Wait till you are calm, then consider it carefully. Try to understand their point of view. Understand why it made you feel the way you do. Reflect on why it has got under your skin.

We can also learn from mentors, teachers and those experienced in the field. Don’t rely on just one teacher or mentor though. You don’t want to become a leader in someone else’s mould. You need to be true to yourself and become an authentic leader in your own style. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, it was tempting to think I should emulate Steve Jobs in his leadership style to get the best out of my teams. However I am definitely not Steve Jobs. This would have been a big mistake. If I had started to be as demanding and unforgiving as Steve is depicted, my teams would not have responded in the way I wanted. That doesn’t mean I can take nothing from his example to benefit me though. His single-minded focus on quality and his belief in his team’s ability to achieve are excellent qualities we can all incorporate in our own leadership without fear of destroying our teams or our own credibility.

These are my initial thoughts on learning about leadership and why this site exists. I am sure I will return to this topic at some point in the future. I hope you get something out of visiting here and I wish you well on your own learning journey.

About Sam Meldrum

Sam Meldrum is a Partner at Barnett Waddingham LLP where he leads the IT team. I have an interest in leadership, business, economics, technology, Christianity, running, cycling​ and photography. You can find my other stuff on the web by visiting about.me/SamMeldrum​ or follow me on Twitter: @SamMeldrum.
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