Why Every Great Leader Needs a Love of Learning

Post by Open Colleges on August 12th, 2017

In the fast-paced environment in which organisations now function, if they are unable to learn, they are left behind,” says Nancy Dixon of the Department of Knowledge Management and Innovation Research Centre in Hong Kong. Truly great leaders, leaders who inspire change within these organisations by pushing individuals to excel, know the value of continual learning. They have a vested interest in their own personal and professional development, and can transfer that passion to the rest of their team. In this modern era of accelerating change, leaders must cultivate a love of learning in themselves and others or, as Dixon suggests, risk stagnating while other organisations thrive.

One area leaders can look to for direction on this front is within schools and other institutions of learning. Educators face similar challenges when it comes to pushing their students: to prepare them for a rapidly changing job landscape, teachers need to instill in their students a lifelong love of learning that allows them to adapt their skill sets in order to meet the quickly shifting demands of various economies and industries. So what does a “love of learning” look like, exactly, and what can managers learn from teachers when it comes to transferring this skill to others?

What Does a Love of Learning Look Like?

Educational psychologists often talk about learning in terms of “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” motivation. Extrinsically motivated people learn when they have to, in order to meet goals set by someone other than themselves. These people memorise new information to pass the course or do their job, but don’t typically learn for the sake of learning. Intrinsically motivated people learn because they want to, in order to meet goals set by themselves as well as others. They do learn for the sake of learning, because they find it personally and/or professionally fulfilling. Research shows that the deepest learning happens as a result of intrinsic motivation. People who love to learn, for its own sake and not just to satisfy external goals or requirements, are often intrinsically motivated.

Here’s what that might look like:

Finding meaning and purpose in learning

Individuals who have a genuine love of learning find meaning and purpose in learning itself. They enjoy and see inherent value in it, often connecting it to a bigger purpose either personally or professionally. If the purpose of life is to learn (whether to become the best person you can be, become better at your job, or share your knowledge with others), then in fact every learning experience, good or bad, becomes a step in the right direction.

Viewing challenges as opportunities

You’ve probably heard this one before, but it bears repeating. People with a true love of learning don’t see roadblocks; they see the next road, with the next roadblock, and imagine themselves cruising around it with virtually no effort. They recognise an opportunity to learn and get ahead when they see one, and that kind of long-term vision transforms a “problem” into a positive, energising challenge.

Placing a high value on reflection

Most of us would agree that reflection is a good thing, but how many of us actually set aside time to do it? The more we reflect, the more we learn. People who have a true love of learning understand and practise this in whatever form works best for them, whether it’s keeping a learning journal, holding a lot of group meetings to assess how well a particular strategy worked, or simply taking the time to collect one’s thoughts in private. Reflection spurs further learning, too: When we realise we have done something well or done something poorly, we’re usually fired up to continue or correct our behaviour.

How Can You Inspire a Love of Learning in Others?

1. Encourage indulgence in personal interests.

The good news is, we all have personal interests. Some of them may be relevant to our professional lives and some of them may not, but good leaders know to take advantage of both types of interests. First, if employees can learn more about what they’re interested in on a personal level while contributing on a professional level, that’s great for an organisation. But leaders should also encourage team members to make time for interests unrelated to their jobs so that they show up to work with that extra boost of energy and openness which only comes from having spent time doing something that truly stimulates you.

2. Keep asking questions, even if they don’t all get answered.

More often than not, the closer you examine an issue, the more interesting that issue becomes. That’s why it’s crucial, in developing a love of learning, to keep asking questions (or “chase questions”) even when it seems you’ve found a reasonable explanation or solution to a problem.

“The more we encourage questions, the better,” says Elena Aguilar, Oakland educator and author of The Art of Coaching Teams. “Chasing questions means following them to find the other questions that emerge from an initial question. We can say this to our children: ‘What else do you want to know? What else does that make you think of?’ We can praise their questions, ‘Interesting idea. I like that question.’ We can refrain from answering their questions, even if we know the answer: ‘I appreciate that question. What do you think? Why do you think that happens?'”

Some leaders might worry about the time it takes to answer all of these questions, but the important part is the questioning, even if not all the questions get answered (or at least not right away).

3. Promote a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset.

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s growth mindset has gained widespread popularity for good reason: If we believe we can become better learners, and therefore be better at our jobs or at school, we start viewing learning differently.

“If you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that,” Dweck says. “Because slipups stem from a lack of effort or acquirable skills, not fixed ability, they can be remedied by perseverance. Challenges are energising rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn.”

Promoting this mindset in the workplace or at school can be a hugely effective way of instilling a love of learning in your students or employees.

4. Model your own love of learning.

The best way to inspire? Be inspiring. If you work on cultivating your own love of learning, then demonstrate that passion in the workplace, your team will pick up on the good vibes. Talk about the things that interest and excite you. Don’t feel like you have to “know it all”; share your own learning goals with the whole team.

“When teachers and professors themselves are enthusiastic, they can transmit their enjoyment to their students,” says Professor Reinhard Pekrun, Chair of Personality and Educational Psychology at the University of Munich. “Indeed, this is true of all emotions that a teacher displays in the classroom; it holds for positive emotions like pride in students’ achievements or hope that the social climate in the class will improve, and also for negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety or boredom.”

If you openly enjoy learning and growing, so will your team. If you don’t, it’s likely they won’t either.

Leaders need to cultivate a love of learning to stay abreast of current trends in their industry and to remain inspired when external rewards are no longer enough. But more than that, leaders need a love of learning in order to share it with others. Just as teachers can help students become lifelong learners and therefore adaptable, successful professionals, managers can inspire their employees to learn for learning’s sake in order to bring the best version of themselves to their job every day.

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