By Erika Andersen | May 16, 2013

You can’t lead if you can’t learn. And not all adults learn that well. How to change that.

Here’s a puzzle: Even though people talk about leadership all the time, and roughly eight kajillion leadership books have been published, we’re still plagued with fair to poor leaders in many, perhaps most, organizations.

Why is this?  Part of the problem is that most of us, deep down, don’t really think it’s possible for an okay leader to become a great leader. We believe leadership ability is inborn. Either you have it or you don’t. Unfortunately, thinking something is impossible makes it very difficult to accomplish.

The other difficulty is that most adults aren’t very good learners. In order to become the best leader (or, actually, the best anything) you’re capable of being, you have to become a great learner. Here are the three things most required to be that kind of powerful learner:

Accurate self-awareness

To get better at something, you have to be clear about your current knowledge or capability. For example, I met someone a few months ago who thinks he’s a truly great leader, while nearly everyone around him sees him as a poor leader.

I call this kind of deeply inaccurate self-assessment The American Idol Syndrome, in honor of all those contestants who are convinced they’re going to be the next pop sensation but who can’t actually sing. Their lack of accurate self-awareness makes it nearly impossible for them to be open to feedback or learning.

In order to master anything, you have to start by being able to objectively assess your own current capability.


True curiosity is a very powerful thing, and it’s built into all of us.  Anyone who’s ever been around a little kid can attest to that. Their endless asking of “why?” and “how come?” and “what’s that?” all arise from that impulse to investigate: curiosity. For children, curiosity is a powerful, instinctive survival mechanism. The more they understand about their environment, and the more quickly they understand it, the more likely they are to succeed as human beings. Kids’ insatiable curiosity drives them to learn to speak, eat, walk, and interact with other people remarkably quickly.  It leads them to know what is dangerous and what is safe, what is delicious and what is disgusting, what is useful and what is pointless.

Unfortunately, many of us lose touch with that inborn curiosity as we become adults. We assume we understand things well enough, thank you very much.  Also, our curiosity is often stifled by others.  We’re taught, “mind your own business,” “don’t read ahead,” and “do what you’re told.” These are all clear societal messages to stop investigating the environment.

In order to learn to be a great leader, you have to re-connect with your innate curiosity.  The best learners and the most successful leaders are continually asking curiosity-based questions such as, “How does that work?” and “Why is that happening?” and “How can I….?” and “What if…?”

Be willing to be not-good

This may be the toughest aspect of true learning.  The path to being great at anything includes many, many points of being not great. Or even not good. That’s frustrating and embarrassing.

This is especially difficult for people who are smart and quick learners in general. The first time they run into something that requires real time and effort to master, where their initial efforts are clunky or incorrect, their impulse is to give up and go back to stuff they’re already good at.

Being able to keep going,  and to work through incompetence, is essential to real learning of any kind. Real learning requires both being OK with our own initial ineptness and faith in our ability to get through it.
So if you want to get good at anything, you need to be realistic about where you’re starting from; unleash your innate curiosity; and be willing to be not-great before you get great. And the results are powerful: as a master learner, you have the key to becoming the best leader–or anything else–you can be.