Joyce Mccown, Unsplash

I’m reading a book called the Gift of Injury right now, by Stuart McGill and Brian Carroll. Dr McGill is arguably one of the best back doctors in the world and Brian is one of the physically strongest men in the world. In 2013, Brian developed a serious back injury that crippled him in daily life. One morning he was in such despair he found himself in a parking lot, holding a handgun, contemplating taking his life.

Brian put the gun away, thankfully, and through a friend found his way to Dr McGill in Canada (where all great things are these days, apparently). The hero’s journey then evolves — a broken man is healed and able to compete again at the highest level. What struck a chord for me is how the turning point was when Brian stopped pretending to be strong, stopped fighting his body every inch of the way, and instead chose to learn.

Only then could he recover and in fact progress to the next level of competition.

There is a Brian Carroll in all of us. In the change work TJA does with organizations, the leaders we encounter are stubborn, hard-working and ambitious. You need those qualities to step into responsibility in the first place, and to push on in the face of difficulty. But what happens when you hit a plateau? What happens when what you’ve been doing doesn’t work any more? Or worse, what happens when what you’re doing gets you injured — physically, emotionally or politically?

Getting to the next level of performance for you, your team, or your organization almost always requires a deep learning curve. Sometimes — think of Tiger Woods remaking his golf swing — that learning curve means going back to basics and relearning everything you thought you knew. And that is so damn hard, for many reasons. But you emerge stronger.

Two leaders we encountered last year were a study in contrasts. One — we’ll call him John — had the confidence and doggedness of a winning endurance athlete. He was hired into the President role at an organization that needed to be turned around. It was a big new role for him, with a new team. Early on, he seemed already overwhelmed. To his credit, he asked for input from lots of sources. But it always seemed that the input slid superficially over him — it would influence his very next move as a leader (often in a way that was confusing for the team), but at no point did he get curious about what he needed to change in his own behavior.

Any problems always seemed to be outside of him, and as things got worse, like Brian, he just dug even deeper into his resolve and stamina, burning the candle at both ends and getting involved in day to day decisions with over 15 direct reports. The tell-tale was the lack of any introspection. It was always about what was wrong with the company or the team, and he would soldier on.

After a year of poor performance he was let go.

Contrast that with a leader we’ll call Jane, who joined a tech company as their new CMO, a new role for her, and a new role for the company. It was messy from the get-go. What do you do to lead a function that barely exists, in a culture that has no understanding of it? The early months were full of uncertainty and a sense of urgency but without clarity from the top. Several of her peers sought to marginalize her.

She had the same ambition and persistence we’ve seen in others, in that she showed up every day, determined to make a difference. But she was also a consummate learning leader. She kept asking what she could be doing differently. She kept herself open to help and instead of trying to take control of every decision, she drew people in who genuinely could help her especially in the areas where she was weak.

In private, she fumed at being hurt or marginalized. But instead of attacking her detractors, she stayed curious and asked questions: “What are your goals? What can we agree on? Here’s my vision of marketing — what would you add?”. She learned her way out of her zone of incompetence and into one of competence as a CMO. Even more, she set a tone that created trust among her colleagues and political goodwill.

She earned the trust of the CEO and founders, built belief in marketing and is now thriving.

The point is not that learning delivers miracles, despite my convenient storytelling. It’s that learning is essential if you want to grow as a leader and steer a team well through the uncertainty of change.

So as you start to find your flow in 2020, don’t just think about what you’re going to achieve this year, but about what you want yourself and your team to learn. Maybe broaden the aperture: what can you do about a culture of learning in leadership throughout the organization?

Here are some of the habits we’ve seen work for the most growth-minded leaders we know:

  • Reflect each week on the top three things you learned that week. As the greater educator John Dewey said: “We learn not from experience, but from reflecting upon experience.” I wish I did this more often — because when I do, I find all kinds of insight.
  • Bring a learning intention into every meeting. My former mentor, the brilliant Keith Yamashita, would ask a simple and devastatingly brilliant question when confronted with clever charts and good data: “What does this teach us?” was his question. And when asked, it shifted the entire mindset of a group to a much more productive stance. How many times do we let presentations wash over us otherwise, to no ill effect, but also to no positive outcome?
  • When you’re down and dark, go to a place of learning, not doom. Brain Pickings had the most lovely post on this recently. The one thing we can turn toward in dark times is our capacity to learn. It’s the trait that helps us endure. Ultimately, if you embrace it, it’s the trait that helps us thrive.

On that note, here’s to Leading Bravely in 2020.


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Founder and President, | Adjunct Professor, Columbia School for International and Public Affairs, Kettlebell instructor (SFG1)