I am in the middle of reading a wonderful biography about Abraham Lincoln. As I have read, many things have struck me about Lincoln’s life. In particular, I have learned that the numerous failures, setbacks, and personal losses in his life before the Presidency were critical steps that prepared him to lead our country at its most difficult hour since the Revolutionary War.
Laced through the often painful events that marked Lincoln’s life are specific times when he paused and stepped back to consider what he had learned – and could learn – from the course his life had taken until that point. He was blessed to have at least three strong mentors at different points in his life. These people helped him grow past some of the poor habits he developed in his youth. They also provided him with a different perspective and with knowledge that he did not have previously.
If Lincoln was not teachable, it is unlikely that he would have become prominent, much less our greatest president. In fact, his early political career was marred by doing some really foolish things. These errors caused his political career to falter. If he had not learned from these mistakes, his public life would probably not have been successful.
People who believe that they have learned everything they need to know generally fail as leaders. In the today’s modern culture, change is happening so fast that a leader must constantly be learning more about the world overall. In addition, effective leaders must also commit themselves to learning about modern trends and events that affect the organizations and the people they are leading.
Great leaders also learn from the people they are leading. As a consultant, I am often thrust into a situation where the people I am advising, or in some cases leading, know much more about their business than I do. I learned long ago that I may know more than them about how to manage people or put financials together, but I nearly always know less than they do about their business. In these situations, I have to be teachable.
Teachability is an important characteristic to develop, especially for a leader. It is essential to our ability to move through life successfully. People who don’t continue to learn soon find themselves left behind. And if you are behind, you cannot lead.
Teachability keeps us from falling victim to the danger of contentment with the status quo. The sad truth is that there is a tendency for leaders to think that they know as much as they need to know to be successful. It takes proactive effort for a leader to continue to focus on learning. Unfortunately, leaders who don’t do this will soon lose their ability to lead.
There is a simple, logical progression that effective leaders should understand: To lead, you must grow. That growth will determine who you are and who you will become. Who you are will determine who you will attract. Who you attract will determine the quality of people in your organization. And the quality of people in your organization will determine the success of your organization.
If we truly grasp that progression, then we have to recognize that leaders must remain teachable. Here are five things you can do to cultivate a teachable attitude:
- Don’t fall in love with your achievements. Enjoy compliments but don’t dwell on them. Guard against passively assuming an attitude that you know all you need to know. If you stop learning and growing, you will soon not be able to lead effectively.
- Don’t let your success become an obstacle to personal growth. If you begin to enjoy your success too much it can hinder your desire to learn. Remain a bit dissatisfied no matter how successful you have become. Don’t spend your time measuring what you have achieved. Instead, focus on setting new goals.
- Avoid shortcuts. The process often teaches us valuable lessons that cannot be learned any other way. Instant success is seldom lasting. As noted above, the trials and challenges that Lincoln went through in his childhood and through most of his adult years prepared him to carry the burden of leading this country during the Civil War.
- Trade in your pride so you can keep learning. Pride is the enemy of learning. If you admit that you don’t know everything, you will be more teachable. As a successful person, you know some things, but you don’t know everything. And some things you need to know in order to be successful in the future are not even out there to be learned yet.
- Make the same mistake once. Learn from every mistake. After you have learned from it, forget about the mistake. Look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. Don’t punish yourself when you make a mistake, but make sure you learn everything you can from each mistake. Then move forward boldly with the knowledge that you won’t make that mistake again.
Good leaders maintain a humble heart. They are not impressed by their own success. They keep learning and are grateful for the opportunities they have. They have a hungry mind and often have a passion and hunger for personal growth.
Good leaders also look at the big picture. They live in the future. They surround themselves with advisors and counselors who both challenge them and provide them with a different point of view.
And finally great leaders are always dissatisfied with the present. They understand that individuals and organizations are either getting better or they are declining. The desire to improve on the status quo is critical to effective leadership. Constantly striving to be teachable and improve the current situation is a key component of excellent leadership.