By Jef Williams
Practicing leadership is a something we are all responsible to pursue. Leadership plays a role in all facets of life and work, and I’ve found it is embedded in nearly every aspect of how we deliver and support health care. Leadership is not necessarily a positional role or based on title, although that is certainly a part of how we define and evaluate good and effective leadership. Beyond positional leadership there is personal or relational leadership. This is the role we play based on informal, yet important, roles we play in providing guidance and support of others around us. Most of us will serve in both of these types of leadership roles along our career path for colleagues, direct reports, our own leadership teams and patients. It’s important that we take the time to study and understand the qualities of a good leader.
Early in my career I pursued personal and positional leadership roles. I found the pursuit to be challenging and always stretching my abilities. There are hundreds of great books and programs available to anyone who wants to study leadership. I’ve read more of these books and attended more of the seminars that I can recall (although I do have entire shelves in my study filled with the leadership books I’ve read and marked up along the way). There are so many important axioms that transcend the frameworks of position and industry in what makes a great leader. One that I learned early on and really can be considered a foundational characteristic of effective leadership is simply: Become a lifelong learner.
The idea of lifelong learning came after years of pursuing degrees and certifications. I was conditioned to approach learning as a personally enriching experience but still as largely transactional. As a student we put in the time, we glean the knowledge necessary to excel and ultimately are rewarded with a degree or certification. While most of us continue to pursue ongoing education as a means to maintain our credentials, that in itself is not what is meant by the spirit of lifelong learning. Rather, there is a more holistic and expansive quality to great leaders who never stop learning. There are several characteristics I have discovered from those who I choose to emulate in my own ongoing development that help determine the value of the pursuit of lifelong learning.
Learning requires curiosity. That seems simple enough and maybe self-evident. But the truth is too often we engage in learning activities that are not driven by curiosity. Consider the number of seminars, webinars, books or conferences you have engaged with that did not pique your curiosity. When we are faced with information that doesn’t match our curiosity appetite we struggle to effectively consume, retain or implement content. We multi-task or let our mind wander, if we complete the content at all.
Curiosity drives the pursuit of understanding. While this includes ongoing education in our field of expertise, it expands well beyond maintaining credentials and niché expertise. Curious leaders pursue many channels of knowledge and find links and values that can be translated. Some individuals I know pursue history, or science, or human behavior, or organizational development topics – the list is as big as your local library or online content.
Several years ago, I began attending a conference that has nothing to do with my profession and nearly nothing to do with health care. But I was curious about the content and technology related to this annual event. I found early on that while there were very few direct links to my career or industry, the information and themes had plenty to teach me. I’ve attended every year for over a decade (this year will be virtual) and find it to be one of my favorite events as it feeds my curiosity, forces me to learn new things and, ultimately, makes me a better leader.
A leader doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the room – that is reserved for those with insecurity. Humility is inherently required in effective leadership and foundational in lifelong learning. One must approach learning from a position of openness. While many of us are experts in our field, there is always opportunity to grow. Organizations understand the value of continuous improvement (call is Six Sigma, Lean or Kaizen) and we as people should also practice the self-awareness required to learn. As you consume information from a position of humility you find that there is always something to take away. Perhaps in an entire book or conference you may find much of the information less than compelling. But when you come with humility there is nearly always something to take away.
One form of learning most of us struggle with is criticism. I’ve read that criticism often comes from the wrong person or at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Often, it comes in all three forms at the same time. Our natural inclination is to discount or dismiss criticism. But when we practice humility, we are able to set aside the emotional component or perhaps deficient transaction by which that criticism came and evaluate where there are things to be learned. However, this requires humility.
Lifelong learning is a lifelong endeavor by definition. Becoming a learner for life is a philosophical ideal that will likely ebb, and flow based on other events and forces in our lives. But when a leader determines to take this approach, she will come back to learning as a critical way of growth and fulfillment. It’s a form of self-care that propels us into becoming better versions of who we are. This can include setting regular goals or tasks to ensure we continually make the time to explore new avenues or topics. Regardless of the specifics, good leaders always come back to learning as a way of life. It permeates how we engage those around us. It drives our desire to explore new ideas. It pulls toward broader, and greater, understanding. And ultimately, we become more effective leaders.
Jef Williams, MBA, PMP, CIIP, is a managing partner at Paragon Consulting Partners.