“Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld, 17th century French philanthropist and social reformer

Many managers in leadership roles have stunted personal growth. Their “years of leadership experience and learning” is formal education (usually technical and/or management), followed by a year or two of experience multiplied 20 or 30 times. Here’s an all-too-typical dinner conversation I had with a senior manager in the middle of a two-day improvement workshop I was running with a senior management team. The company was in crisis. It was struggling just to stay even in its industry.

“What do you do to personally improve the leadership skills we discussed today?”

“I am afraid I don’t get much time to do anything.”

“How many leadership or organization effectiveness books do you read a year?”

“One or two if I am lucky.”

“What about seminars, workshops, or executive learning forums?”

“Well, I did get to one… No, that was two years ago.”

“Do you listen to audio tapes in your car?”

“No, I am either winding down, gearing up, or talking on the phone.”

“How often does your management team meet to review progress, reflect on its performance, and plan for improvements?”

“This is the first meeting we’ve had in a few years.”

The 20th century American critic and novelist, John Gardner, once said, “all excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.” Both are critical elements in leadership development and personal effectiveness. Our tenacity and clarity of purpose and vision can help to spin the daily, weekly, and monthly disciplined habit strands. These become the cables that will either raise our performance or drag us down. “Paying the price” of personal improvement often focuses too much on the pain and sacrifice. I’ve found instead, that focusing on the gain of improvement, by keeping my preferred future and purpose firmly in front of me, has been my biggest improvement habit booster.

It’s impossible to put an exact number of hours on the time that effective leaders invest in their own personal improvement. But I would peg the minimum around 10 percent. So if we work 50 hours per week, that’s about 20 hours, or two to three days per month. The type of personal development varies widely. Reading is my single biggest personal development catalyst. I started getting up 45 minutes earlier to exercise and then read personal development or spiritual material, pray and meditate, for over almost two decades now. It’s proven to be one of the best habits I ever developed for starting my day with more energy and constant refocus on my life’s highest priorities.

I read organization improvement and leadership development material in the evenings or weekends when I am at home, or on airplanes (it’s all too easy to dribble away this wonderfully rich, uninterrupted reading and thinking time) and hotel rooms when I travel. I find reading with a pen and my notebook computer nearby the most beneficial. I’ve also found that listening to audio cassettes in my car is a terrific way to catch up on speakers, authors or conference presentations I want to hear.

There are as many learning styles and pathways to personal development as there are leaders using them. A partial list includes: books, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters; special education or business television programs; customer research; pilots, experiments and “clumsy tries;” personal coaching and mentoring; benchmarking internal and external “best practices;” seminars, workshops, and skill development sessions; performance review, assessment, celebration and refocus; operational planning and strategy development sessions; customer, supplier, and internal team/organization member feedback; system and process measurement systems; audio and video tapes; computer, on-line, or multi-media programs; peer groups and networks outside our organizations; teaching and training others; industry conferences and trade shows; university or college courses; keeping a personal journal; self evaluation, reflection, and improvement planning; consultants; and study tours.

Many roads lead to learning. There is no best road. The key is to develop a multitude of interconnected personal learning approaches and the discipline to make our continuous personal improvement a lifelong habit.