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To Learn, To Lead

I’ve come across several bits of learning and leadership wisdom lately through Harvard channels, and I think they are worth sharing. These are from the world of business, but the lessons in them are highly applicable at the personal level for the lifelong learner.

Check Your Ego

The first is a blog post by John Baldoni, Never Let Your Ego Stop You from Learning, in which Baldoni argues that we must each understand how we best learn and use that understanding to drive our ongoing personal growth and development.

Doing this requires a certain amount of courage. The courage to venture into the unknown and ask questions. As Baldoni puts it, “the best leaders are those that are never afraid to ask questions. Rather than a question being a sign of ignorance; it is admission ticket to learning as well as a good way to build rapport and trust with colleagues.” (See also my recent Where Leaders Go to Learn.)

Be prepared to fail – and learn

In a Harvard Business IdeaCast, Use Failure to Grow Your Business, Rita McGrath discusses discovery-driven growth (from her book of the same name), an approach applicable in any environment where uncertainty is high and where assumptions about the course to take outweigh actual knowledge. Most businesses – and, I’d add, most human beings – are not wired very well to approach growth in this fashion. As McGrath puts it,  we tend to put a premium on being right and meeting goals rather than taking chances. Instead, she says, we should borrow the old Silicon Valley line and learn to fail fast, fail “cheap,” and learn greatly from the experience. Again, she has organizations in mind, but the same idea applies on a personal level.

Here’s the podcast. It’s about 10 minutes long.

The opposite of practice makes perfect

In another Harvard Business IdeaCast, Re-thinking the MBA, McGill professor Henry Mintzberg adds to his longstanding criticism of traditional MBA programs.

The core of Mintzberg’s argument is simply that becoming a good manager and a good leader requires experience and an understanding of context. Most students in MBA programs arrive with relatively little experience and are taught a set of skills – primarily analytical in nature – with the idea that they will then be prepared to manage and lead in pretty much any context. That doesn’t work, says Mintzberg, and it can even be harmful because it creates a false sense of confidence. (See also my recent post on Learning in Context.)

One highlight of this interview is Mintzberg’s indictment of the case study method (made famous, of course, by Harvard Business School itself).  In Mintzberg’s opinion, case studies are a highly superficial approach that often lead to decisions based on little real understanding of context.  As one glaring example, he points to well-known MBA George Bush as a practitioner of the case study approach: “Give me a twenty-page case and I’ll give you a war.”

I’ll leave you with the podcast to hear more about how Mintzberg feels management education should be approached, but the core idea here is that the mastery – if that is even the right word – of complex activities like management and leadership requires a great deal of practice and experience. There is not a list or curriculum of “best practices” that can substitute for actual practice. There are no short cuts.
Again, while the podcast is focused on the world of business, the lessons it offers about learning are much more broadly applicable.

Here is the podcast. It is about 12 minutes long.

As always, I welcome comments.

Jeff Cobb

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