Unschooling for cultivating leadership

Author, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations
Great leaders know the best lessons learned don’t come from books or classes–they come straight from life.
SEPTEMBER 25, 2013 A new trend is emerging, in which learning is emphasized in natural, spontaneous ways, without attending a school. Dubbed “unschooling,” it works on the principle that life itself is learning—and some believe this type of learning can actually foster entrepreneurship. “Unschooling,” Leo Babauta writes, is “the best version of homeschooling (or learning in general), because it prepares you for life, for being an entrepreneur, for learning anything, for being autonomous.

“Why is reading a textbook any better in terms of learning than going to the beach and talking about the tides?” Babauta adds. “Why does learning stop at 3 p.m. (or whenever kids get out of school) … why can’t it happen on weekends and summers and evenings?”

What applies to children applies equally to leaders. Learning to be a leader is a lifelong event. As Jim Kouzes puts it, “the best leaders are the best learners.” Kouzes quotes research that shows it takes 2.7 hours of practice per day to improve any skill, whether it’s honing your golf swing or learning to play the piano.

You might think, “I don’t have the time to learn to lead. I’m managing a business.” But the best learning opportunities occur serendipitously when we’re open to receive the leadership lessons that life presents us at every turn.

What are some ways you can learn to be a better leader, whether you’re a veteran or a novice?

Know Yourself

Before you can lead others, you have to know yourself intimately. Some behaviors that derail our leadership are remnants from our family of origin—our first corporation—where we learned about cooperation and competition, and about truth and self-defense, about accepting responsibility and assigning blame. In his seminal book, On Becoming A Leader, Warren Bennis writes, “Our family, friends, school, and society in general have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at the moment when they decide for themselves how to be.” There are four lessons for self-knowledge:

  1. You are your own best teacher. You intuitively know the gap in your leadership between what you are and what you should be. That’s the unschooling approach to learning about leadership.
  2. Accept responsibility; blame no one. Anything that goes wrong on your watch is your responsibility. As the movie A Bug’s Life points out: “First rule of leadership: Everything is your fault.” Get used to this.
  3. You can learn anything you want to learn. Learning to be a leader is not about mastering your discipline; it’s about having the appetite to absorb new things, about seeing the world as it is and as it should be and deciding what part you’ll play in this.
  4. True understanding comes from reflecting on your own experience. Nothing develops your leadership acuity as much as looking back on your accomplishments and failures and understanding what exactly led to them, so you can replicate what worked and avoid what didn’t.

Be Wide Open to the Outside World

Almost anything worth learning in leadership comes from the world around us, not from a classroom. It means observing those in our network who exhibit leadership skills that we admire. It means reading books on leadership, but reading them with a deep interest for self-improvement, which involves reflection on what we read, actively taking notes, and practicing the tools and techniques. It means watching the best TED talks, such as Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” It will show you, for example, the difference between “leaders” and “those who lead.” Leaders hold a position of authority, whereas those who lead inspire others; it will give you a totally different lens through which to see your customers. People don’t buy “what” we do, they buy “why” we do it. (Check out this list of 20 other TED talks on leadership.)

Being wide open to learn from the classroom of life also means traveling, being open to different cultures, finding a mentor and learning from friends. It also means learning from experimenting. The Center for Creative Leadership notes that 60 percent of what we learn about leadership is through trial and error. If you choose to add these to your tool belt, you’re choosing to grow your leadership.

Be Willing to Unlearn

What negative habits are preventing you from being the kind of leader others want to follow? Perhaps it’s your behavior around others that needs some fine-tuning. It might be learning to be more patient so we can hear people out before interrupting, or knowing when to let go in an argument; perhaps it’s not being too vested on who gets the credit for a job well done, or tempering your criticism with compassion. Leadership is not only about learning new, positive behaviors; it’s also about abandoning old ones that don’t serve us and our people well.

As Charles Duhigg shows in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, our habits are quite malleable. If you can diagnose your negative people habits, you can change them in whichever way you want. Duhigg explains how Starbucks, for example, instills one of the most important keystone habits for success in its people: the willpower to control emotions. It turns out that willpower becomes a habit at Starbucks by choosing a desired behavior ahead of time. How can you use this information to help you choose which new habits you can adopt? In other words, how can you change your habits by design?

Let others shine. Giving others on your team the opportunity to shine while you take a back seat is perhaps one of the most challenging things to do, but it’s a choice you have every day. You don’t have to attend any classes for this; all you have to do is simply check your ego at the door. Paradoxically, when you shine the light on others, some of it reflects back on you. It’s the mark of a leader.

Celebrate wins. Business management expert Tom Peters says, “Celebrate what you want to see more of.” Typically, a boss sets up a team celebration at the end of a project. However, team members get discouraged while working on long-term projects, with all the inevitable obstacles and hassles they have to overcome. A good leader sets up small celebrations along the way, to show appreciation for the many small wins that lead to the ultimate goal. Think about all the milestones in a project and how you can set up a celebration at each junction. This doesn’t take very long and pays huge dividends. It honors people’s efforts on your behalf and reunifies the team around shared goals.

Be the first to trust others. “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life,” said American statesman Henry L. Stimson, “is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.” It’s a known psychological fact that people will behave in accordance with how we view them. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Allow others to prove you wrong. Give everyone a second chance to impress you after they’ve failed to make a good impression the first time. This generosity of heart doesn’t go unnoticed and fosters much good will. It’s the kind of behavior that gets others to attribute to you the qualities of leadership.

Read more articles on leadership.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. 

Photo: iStockphoto

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