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Leaders are Lifelong Learners

Legacy Leadership: Leaders are Lifelong Learners

By Professor of Management J. Lee Whittington, Ph.D.


Leeaders are Lifelong LearnersDate published: May 23, 2019 

One of my biggest disappointments came when a leader who I greatly admired told me not to give him any more books or articles on leadership. He said he knew all he needed to know and wasn't interested in learning anything new.

Wow! I couldn't believe he said that.

That was over 35 years ago and the comment still haunts me. I hope I never get to the point that I think I've learned all I need to know about leadership—or husbanding, parenting, teaching, or any kind of relationship for that matter!

The longer I work with leaders, the more acutely aware I am of the fact that the most effective leaders are always challenging themselves to learn and grow. 

Effective leaders must cultivate and sustain a learning mindset.

A learning mindset is characterized by a sense of ongoing learning and transformation. Those who have a learning mindset are constantly seeking new information and new experiences that will challenge them and sharpen their leadership skills.

Despite the importance of need to cultivate a learning mindset, one study found that only 10% of managers have this mindset. This minority of learning leaders share several characteristics:

  1. They have experienced numerous events that caused them to dramatically rethink their basic assumptions.
  2. They possess high cognitive complexity as demonstrated by agility of thought. This is evident in their ability to see solutions not readily apparent to others, to adapt easily to new situations, and to see patterns and connections between seemingly unconnected variables.
  3. They focus on learning from a wide variety of sources.
  4. They communicate readily in metaphors and analogies, and conduct discussions in a nonlinear manner.

In order to develop and cultivate a learning mindset, leaders must engage in leadership development as a discipline, not as recreation. As leaders, we must be intentional about investing in our own leadership development. We cannot afford to slack off on this and become stagnant. 

There are several ways to do this: attend leadership conferences, observe leaders from a wide variety of contexts, interview other leaders, listen to your followers, seek wise counsel from mentors, and read.

So, given this challenge, let me ask: How are you doing on the discipline of developing your leadership?

Are you reading about leadership? Are you seeking out other leaders? Are you finding environments that teach leadership? Or, have you already learned everything you need to know about leadership?


Lead with integrity and innovate with vision through the Master of Leadership program or an MBA with a concentration in strategic leadership.

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