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BW Businessworld

Leaders Must Be Learners

By engaging in the spirit of inquiry, the whole process becomes the leadership of change

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


Learning is a virtue for leaders. The two are inextricably linked, as is reflected in this Zen Master story. A martial arts student went to a teacher and declared that he wanted to learn the system. How long would it take? The teacher replied, “Ten years.” The impatient student said,  “But I want to master it faster than that, I will work very hard, practice ten or more hours a day if necessary. How long would it then take?” The teacher replied, “Twenty years.”

Real learning is transformative and changes us as people, deep inside our hearts and minds, which is why the Pali word ‘citta’ — which translates as heart or mind — is so important in a Buddhist approach to learning. It lies somewhere between the ‘mind’ and ‘heart’ and thus, combines the modern educational jargon of the ‘cognitive’ and the ‘affective’. No such dichotomy exists in Buddhist thinking which is whole and complete.

The primacy of mind and reason has dominated western thinking since the (European) Enlightenment, resulting in the relegation of the heart and emotions to a lower order. The Buddha was perhaps, the original post-modernist, with a model for learning in which the heart and mind are rightly inextricably joined. It is the basis of a truly holistic philosophy of education.

Few CEOs would dispute the importance of continuing learning and professional development for themselves and their team members.  There are several resources that can help a busy CEO keep learning and growing professionally and personally, which include MOOCs, VC blogs and networking opportunities. Or find a mentor who one can learn from. Preferably that person isn’t your direct manager, because you want to be able to ask stupid questions without worrying about looking stupid.
It can be difficult to take time out  for learning as a CEO. The right balance between managing your company and growing your own skills and abilities is possible with a little planning and research. Harry S. Truman said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” There is no terminal degree in education — the whole purpose of education being to convert an ‘empty’ mind to an ‘open’ mind.  

William Crawford said, “Being a student is easy. Learning requires actual work.” Learning anything requires commitment and the ability to push through the uncomfortable feeling of not being very good till competency is reached. While on the path to competency, a little motivation can go a long way. “If you close your eyes to facts, you will learn through accidents,”  is an African proverb. “Learning expands great souls” is a proverb from Namibia.

Satya Nadella says, “I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things.” Many people write and talk about leaders leading learning and change, but by engaging in the spirit of inquiry, the whole process becomes the leadership of change. Learning is a stance. It’s a way of professional being. Leaders must be learners to make a difference.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Piyush Sharma

Piyush Sharma is a modern management practitioner and ancient philosophy enthusiast

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