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Lead Your Team Managing

'Learners' Make the Most Effective Leaders

'Learners' Make the Most Effective Leaders
Credit: Rido/Shutterstock

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader is thinking you always need to have the answer. Yes, people look to you for guidance, but part of guiding a team means helping them learn and discover solutions for themselves, rather than feeding them the "right" answers — which may not even be right at all.

Instead, you should strive to be curious, open-minded and inquisitive, which will in turn drive your employees to do the same.

"Any leader knows he or she sets the tone for the culture," said Rick Rome, CEO of on-demand laundry service WashClub. "When that culture starts to resonate in employees, it builds bigger, better, brighter companies."

In their book "Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win" (Advantage Media Group, 2014), co-authors Guy Parsons and Allan Milham discuss two types of leaders: knowers and learners. Knowers draw their authority and strength from their titles, education and experiences — they allow their background to speak for itself. Learners, on the other hand, are more vulnerable. They know they don't know everything, and are willing to collaborate with their teams to find the answers.

On their website, The Curious Leader, Parsons and Milham break down some of the defining qualities of each type:

  • Directs
  • Micromanages
  • Gives step-by-step instructions
  • Tells
  • Is closed to input
  • Manipulates
  • Demands obedience
  • Discovers
  • Guides
  • Has a framework for finding an ideal path
  • Asks
  • Values input
  • Orchestrates
  • Demands ideas

Milham believes the split between the two types is partly generational. Millennials recognize the fact that they don't have the years of experience their older counterparts have, but they want a seat at the table to learn, he said. On the other hand, baby boomers and even Gen Xers may feel more pressure to demonstrate their knowledge. [What Kind of Leader Are You? Traits, Skills and Styles]

"The previous generations [felt they had] to know the answer," Milham told Business News Daily. "If they didn't, their ego had to mask it, [because] if they didn't have the answer they were perceived as ineffective. Learner leaders are the ones who say, 'I don't know the answer, but we're going to find out.'"

Parsons agreed that generational differences have pushed modern leaders toward a learner mindset, noting that corporate loyalty isn't what it used to be.

"Before, leaders could do an adequate job and people would stay out of loyalty to the [company]," Parsons said. "That's not the case anymore. [Millennial] employees have watched parents, friends and peers get laid off for seemingly no reason, so loyalty has really shifted. It is now the job of a leader to be a magnet for people, to make them want to stay. If people don't feel respect, they won't stay."

"Millennials are free agents," Milham added. "If they're not happy, they'll move. Companies need to shift their mindset."

Leading with a learner mindset opens you up to a wealth of different perspectives that may help you find the most effective solution to a problem — because your way may not necessarily be the best way.

"When you're driving, if you could see in every direction, you wouldn't get into any accidents," Rome said. "When you have ... passionate, considerate, value-added employees, they shed light on things you just can't see."

Walt Rakowich, a leadership speaker and the retired CEO of Prologis, said that teams want a leader who is empathetic enough to listen and decisive enough to act. A learner mindset demonstrates these qualities, and, more important, creates an environment of trust.

"Trust is the single most important ingredient to successful leadership because it creates the conditions for teams to work together in a supportive and open culture, ultimately increasing employees' confidence in the leadership and the success of the company," Rakowich said.

Additionally, learners tend to create a positive, collaborative environment where all employees feel like valued contributors.

"When leaders have a learner mindset, their employees are more open to learning and accepting new ideas from co-workers and management," said April Zhong, president and CEO of SilRay solar firm. "In doing so, you have created an innovative, risk-taking culture that will help your organization continuously innovate and grow. Teams that perform under this mindset are more motivated, efficient, productive and creative."

Ready to embrace the learner mindset? Here's how to lead with a more open, curious attitude.

Practice self-awareness. Being self-aware is the first step in moving toward learner leadership.  Parsons advised using the "fishbowl technique" — remove yourself from the moment and look at your words and actions from an outside perspective.

"Think about how you deliver your next interaction, and [ask yourself], 'How did that really turn out?'" he said. "Instead of going from meeting to meeting, give yourself some space [to reflect]."

"[You need] a genuine desire to notice your impact and quality of leadership," Milham added. "Do you feel compelled to be controlling and micromanaging, as opposed to inspiring and open-ended? Shift from a 'me' to a 'we' orientation."

Value honesty. Charles Silver, CEO of data analytics platform Algebraix Data, said leaders should be focused most on reality, and the best way to do this is with brutal honesty, where everyone is encouraged to challenge orthodoxy and others' opinions if they don't agree.

"If you embrace honesty, everyone on the team is encouraged to have facts to back up their views," Silver said. "This is how you truly get to a learning culture."

Get comfortable with not knowing. One of the hardest things for leaders to say is, "I don't know," Zhong said. But uncertainty about a situation isn't a flaw or a shortcoming — it's an opportunity.

"Management sometimes forgets that leadership is not about knowing all the answers," Zhong said. "[It's] about being able to motivate your team to find the right answers, and create an environment where employees and management can work together as a team."

Nicole Fallon Taylor
Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.