Leaders are Learners: Three Motivational Lessons From Warren Bennis

Life Long Learning, Note 06

What is great about this post (for me) is that Warren Bennis was one of those early and sustained sources of learning. He guided me in my own learning about leadership and my work at being a leader. I would read what he said, and I would try it out. I would engage with his most inspiring ideas and I would seek to put them into practice. Warren Bennis helped me understand that leaders are learners and that great leaders are great at learning. Here are three thoughts and some commentary about them.

Warren Bennis quote, taking charge of your learningONE:
Leaders learn by taking charge of their learning.

No one but you can be responsible for your learning. Others can help you. Others can provide resources. But ultimately, the only one who can take charge of your learning is YOU.

You are the one who has to find the inner energy, drive, motivation, longing, desire and rationale for learning. Learning takes time. It costs you something. It is a process that can never end. You have to be in this learning process for the Long Haul (i.e. Life Long). 

You are not only responsible for your own motivation to learn, but likewise - the direction of your learning. You have to have sufficient self-awareness about your gifts, strengths, passions, inclinations, needs, interests, possibilities and potential... And then, design your learning accordingly. Again, others can offer help, support, advice, correction and so on, but ultimately You are responsible for the direction and content of your learning. Pray, reflect, plan, figure it out.

I am nearing the end of a mentoring process where I am working with nine leaders. I designed a learning experience for them that lasted for a year. They were all highly motivated to be in the process. They had discerned their need for this and they had the desire for it. I provided the learning environment, context and resources.

As we finish this year long program, i am guiding them in designing their 3-5 year learning plan. Ultimately, it is their responsibility to figure out where they will direct their learning and to come up with the motivation to work their plan. I am full confident that each person will actually do this. Very exciting possibilities for these leaders who are taking charge of their learning.

Warren Bennis quote, learning from excellenceTWO:
Leaders learn from excellence

Oh does this idea ever inspire me. Many (many) years ago, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church provided what has become a "leadership proverb" for me.

Excellence honors God and inspires people!

Yes it does. At least it does me. But in reality, it does most people. This is what Bennis is saying in this thought. Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. Sadly, mediocrity is everywhere. Everywhere there are just average leaders and just pretty good (almost) organizations. We have mediocrity in our schools, our businesses, our politicians (okay - there we have just plain BAD), our churches...

Mediocrity is not inspiring and it does not deserve to be imitated.

Instead, Bennis recommends we find what is excellent and allow it to be our inspiration and our example. That is what we imitate - not slavishly, but innovatively.

Look around you.
Where do you see beauty?
Where do you find profound truth?
Where do you find relentless drive for creativity?
Where do you find compelling and rigorous strategy that is implemented?
Where do you discover very high standards for quality?
Where do you find energized people giving their very best (and a lot of it at that)?

That is what you want to learn from? It is not an accident that the Apostle Paul gives us the pinnacle example of wondrous excellence when he describes the mysterious, servant leadership way of Christ in Philippians 3:1-11 and tells us to look to Jesus and follow that model. If you haven't read this highest standard of beautiful excellence, check it out and be inspired.

Leaders learn by actually leading.

Okay, this got longer than I thought - so let me be much briefer on this thought from Bennis.

You can learn some things about leadership by reading about leadership, thinking about it, studying it, analyzing it, and blogging about it. But you really learn leadership by actually leading.

You learn to lead by getting in the trenches, where the rubber meets the road, where the stuff hits the fan, where it really matters, where there are actual consequences, where something is at stake.

You learn to lead when you face problems, challenges, difficulties, struggles, obstacles and even crises. You learn when you fall short, fall down, and generally fail.

It hurts. It is hard. But oh do you learn. And you either grow up as a leader or you drop out.

So, as a writer-teacher about leadership, I am never SATISFIED by giving you some ideas, no matter how good they are. I want you to take them with you during your day. Reflect on them. Put them into practice. Watch them in action. Make adjustments. Tweak them. Refine them. Or throw them away and look for something better.


So in that spirit, today if you:

(1)  take charge of your learning,
(2)  find excellence to be your teacher, and
(3)  actually do something as a leader . . .

it will be a good day of leadership learning. String some of those days together and you begin to form habits of learning as a leader. Sustain that for a time and you will see the results you desire.

Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International