Whether your leadership role is running a company, supervising a corporate function, or being an effective parent, you probably want to be an inspirational leader—one who motivates others to succeed. The inspiration you seek to provide may be in the form of strategic direction, forming a unified team, facilitating solutions to tough problems, or in launching a significant innovation.
But how can one become an effective conduit for such inspiration? What do great leaders do that makes them great?
These questions have intrigued leadership researchers for decades. One of these, Roselinde Torres, senior partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group, recently spent a full year of focused study to distill the characteristics of great leaders and what they do differently than others.
The results of Ms. Torres’ research is that modern-day leadership is defined by three questions:
- Where are you looking to anticipate the next change to your business model or your life?
- What is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network?
- Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?
With regard to the third question, it is clear that inspiration is essential. Without a strong sense of clarity, direction and confidence, abandoning past practices can be chaotic and destructive. However, as best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith has said, “What got you here won’t get you there.”
So where does this inspiration come from? In short: continuous learning.
Consider Ms. Torres’ first key question: “Where are you looking to anticipate change?” This might be restated as: What are your sources of current information? What are you reading? What trends, threats, and opportunities do you see emerging? How might these impact your business, your family, your life? What actions do these learning experiences and insights lead you to consider?
Moving to her second question regarding the diversity of your network, ask yourself: Who do you spend time with? Who are your mentors, advisors, confidants? Where do you go to exchange ideas, concerns and opportunities—and to have your views and conclusions challenged? Where do you seek connections that will expand your view and understanding of the world, your business, your life? Developing a network of people who are different than you inevitably provides learning that can’t be achieved any other way.
The third question regarding courage leads us back to the need for inspiration. To take truly inspired action, we must recognize the value of having the best, most current information available. While none of us will ever have 100 percent of the information we want, those leaders who make learning a continuous priority in their lives will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.
Being a learning leader may involve very focused study on a subject area, or it may be much broader in scope. Indeed, many of the best leaders commit themselves to exposure to a broad variety of learning experiences including daily reviews of current affairs, non-fiction reading (including histories), podcasts, seminars, TED Talks, and even fictional literature. They participate in a variety of networking opportunities, including such forums as my own company, CEObuilder.
Learning for most of us evokes memories of school. Formal education certainly plays an important role in the life of the learner, but to consider graduation from any level of academia to be a “learning finish line” is to significantly impair the likelihood of success in any endeavor, especially leadership. The content of what we learn in our school days is simply insufficient to carry us through the challenges of business and life.
Great leaders bring the processes of study learned at school into the greater portion of their lives beyond formal education. These processes allow them to access relevant information, giving them greater perspective and inspiration in their leadership. Decisions are made on sounder assumptions, allowing them to be confident and enthusiastic in moving forward decisively. Or as Roselinde Torres would say, “They have courage to abandon past practices in favor of new initiatives.”
Are you a learning leader? If not, don’t despair. You don’t need to enroll in an MBA program. Just consider where your knowledge is lacking regarding your business or industry, or the broader world in which you live. Then seek the sources of information and connection that will help you bridge the gap. Finally, dedicate yourself to use those sources. You’ll soon find yourself a lifelong learner and a better leader.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.