Growing A Leadership Practice through Deliberate Learning (Part 3, Leadership for Entrepreneurs)

Now that we have cultivated a shared story of vision and created productive relationships, our expanding organization is ready to explore new, more effective ways to perform work. This is when members become more than just cogs. The function of learning allows the group to find excellence that didn't exist before.


But first, we have to practice our own learning.


Because, you see, the function of learning has two paths. First, it exists – like all functions – throughout the members of the group, without any intervention or guidance. This is how members experiment with new behaviors to improve the organization. We’ll explore this in the next part of this series.


As leaders, we have a unique experience in learning. Our decision to lead others – that is, to create an environment where they can be excellent – requires that we learn not just at the organizational level, with each of them. We must also learn within our leadership practice, which is separate from the other path of learning. Our leadership practice is the sum total of the behaviors we use to act on the functions of leadership, and the mental process we use to select and apply these behaviors to real-world situations. We cannot exactly quantify a leadership practice, but we can observe it growing over time as we accomplish greater success and resolve more challenging issues.


This is a new form of learning for many entrepreneurs. But just as we have learned to manage manufacturing, or sales and marketing, or information technology, or whatever aspect of business supports the creation of our revolutionary product or service, so too must we now begin to build our capabilities to bring out the best in others.


There’s something interesting about the function of learning within us: For nearly every leader, it happens unconsciously or without a formal structure. We find ideas or tactics that seem useful, and we apply them as we can. Successful leaders often have awareness of the importance of growing and dedication to new ideas, but they lack the context of the functions to understand how and why a new tactic or idea affects the group. Asking, “What Do Good Leaders Do?” is inherently limiting.


As a result, nearly every leader is limited by chance. These leaders adopt a behavior because it worked for someone else, not because it matches a specific challenge in the group. Their leadership practices are only able to include the behaviors they encounter, rather than identifying gaps and seeking out the answer, because they lack a mental model of excellent leadership and the outcomes it produces. They also often fail to reach behavioral change. As a result, most leaders’ practices are limited. Keep this in mind when you look at great leaders: if they had the tools you are learning now, they could have been even more successful.

Fortunately – or unfortunately, in this case – there is a classic indicator that we are not doing enough of this learning. This is the feeling or statement, “They Are Not Listening to Me.”


“They Are Not Listening to Me”

Both the function of vision and relationships allow members of the group to perform work with excellence. Vision and relationships contribute in different ways to this overall goal.

Learning is behavioral change. If we want to have a different impact on the group, we must act in different ways. We must perform different behaviors. Reading a book or thinking about an idea is not learning.


Behavioral change is difficult, however. Our preferential behaviors are exactly that: comfortable, familiar actions that we have practiced. They may not work, but they’re easy to apply in a moment of high emotions. Trying something new and different, with an unknown outcome, is much more psychologically challenging. Therefore, every learning tactic is designed to lessen this discomfort and ease the process of reaching behavioral change.


A Deliberate Learning Process

We don’t want our leadership practice to be limited by chance. What we need instead is a deliberate learning process. This produces more predictable improvements in behavior and directs these improvements towards the unique challenges of your leadership situation. A process of learning requires three things:

  1. The four markers of learning, which indicate that a specific situation has the potential to be better.

  2. The three places to find new behaviors, which contain new behaviors that we can incorporate into our leadership practice.

  3. The learning cycle, which we use to analyze and understand a situation in a way that leads to behavioral change.

When we use these three tools to grow, we will recognize when learning is possible, seek out the thing we need to learn in the right place and follow a process to turn that learning into a real-world action at the right moment.


The SEEING EXERCISE Examining Leadership Ideas helps us explore and apply leadership concepts that we encounter.


Focus on People and Interactions, Not Tasks

Every organization is a system of human beings who distribute, complete, and combine individual tasks to produce a shared output. The way they do so either limits the quality of the product or encourages improvement and excellence. As entrepreneurs, we have practiced observing problems in the performance of tasks. As leaders, we must observe problems in tasks within the context of human interactions. This means seeking out the root cause of a problem within the functions of vision, relationships, and learning. While we might want to believe that a failure is due to incompetence or laziness, the actual cause is likely elsewhere in the organization.


Recognize and Improve Our Preferential Behaviors

Preferential behaviors are those that we have already learned. These are practiced, almost habituation behaviors that we perform without deliberate consideration. Unfortunately, just because a behavior is easy to perform does not mean that it is a good behavior. Many of these behaviors are actually counterproductive. We use them not because they achieve the results we want, but because they are familiar.


As entrepreneurs, this is particularly true. We are often driven, assertive people who are highly focused on results. These characteristics make us successful at entrepreneurship, but they are more challenging when we are responsible for people.


The goal of learning is to replace these behaviors with more effective ones. To do so, we have to admit when the impact of our actions is undesirable. Anger, in particular, is often expressed in unproductive ways that damage the vision and hinder relationships.


The markers of learning help us recognize these moments. When we feel strong emotions after an interaction, we should check ourselves to see if there was a better outcome that we missed. If so, it’s time for a learning cycle and seeking out some other, more productive behavioral options. We can then plan for replacing the undesirable behavior, including identifying the details of the desired outcome, the behavior we will perform, and the trigger for the new behavior.


The SEEING EXERCISE The Hidden Outcomes of Preferences shows us the impacts of our behaviors that we might not see.


This is also true when we face a new challenge where we are unsure. In this case, we need to create a plan. This begins with identifying what in the group we are trying to create, based on the functions. From there we can seek out behavioral options and come up with a strategy.


We Model Outcomes, Not Behaviors

There’s one specific situation that the functional approach helps us re-examine, and that is modeling. This place to learn allows us to observe another leader’s successful behavior and copy it, or to see an unsuccessful behavior and avoid it. This is the learning pathway for mentoring and several other pedagogical approaches.

We need to revise our normal approach to this learning place, however. We do so by transitioning from asking, “What do good leaders do?” to, “What does the group need?” This approach teaches us to look at the outcome, not the behavior. We look at other leaders not for what they did, but for the result the behavior had on the group.


Leadership is always situational, and so our situation will require a different behavior – or at least adapted form – to accomplish the same result. Therefore, we need to see and understand the value that a behavior caused in a specific situation. From there, we can then look backwards through the places to learn and the learning cycle to create a plan for a similar effect in our unique situation and group.


The SEEING EXERCISE Failure to Reach Behavioral Change allows us to re-examine learning opportunities to see if our learning was successful.


Leadership is Learning

This brings us back to the statement “They aren’t listening to me.” Some people just aren’t going to work hard or do things the right way. But it is nearly always possible to get others to do things with excellence if we understand the reasons they aren’t doing so now. The functions of vision, relationships, and learning shape what is possible in the group. That statement is a symptom of a lack of leadership cause by the lack of a deliberate learning process. With that process in action, there is no limit to our leadership practice, and therefore the things that we can accomplish. This is why we need to apply the three tools in this article every day, to all of our actions. Once we start seeing all of the opportunities within the group, then we can begin improving our own leadership practice.


We’re Not Done Yet

There’s one last part of this series on the transition from entrepreneurship to leadership. It’s about the function of learning as it is distributed among the members of the group, and how this function allows the group to discover new ways to perform the work and therefore reach new levels of excellence. The way that we shape this function is the ultimate expression of bringing out the best in others, and I have some very specific tactics for you to apply to your budding organization. Check it out here.


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