“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” — John F. Kennedy, 35th American president

The great American founding father, author, and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, was highly devoted to life long learning and continual personal improvement. His book, The Art of Virtue (edited by George Rogers), is an inspiring account of Franklin’s life and an instructive guide to his improvement process and personal effective system. Franklin once said, “If you empty your purse in your head, no one can take it away from you. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” Modern research shows that Franklin’s advice on learning is as valid today as it was 200 years ago:

  • Doug Snetsinger, executive director, the Institute of Market Driven Quality (part of the Faculty of Management at the University of Toronto) surveyed 326 Canadian CEOs to see if there were any connections between the senior executives’ personal development and their organization’s performance. The organization performance indicators he used were profit, market share, customer satisfaction, quality goals, and costs.
  • The “Learning Leaders” study found, “regardless of the size of the business or the industry in which it competes, organizations headed by learning leaders are far more likely to be achieving their operational goals than those that do not have that leadership…the higher the learning effectiveness of the senior team, the more likely that the firm is prospering.” Doug concludes, “The CEO’s personal development is not personal. It is fundamental to sustaining and rejuvenating the health of the organization.”
  • In the “Summary and Conclusions” section at the end of his lengthy and highly researched book, Organization Culture and Leadership, Sloan School of Management (MIT) professor, Edgar Schein, writes, “It seems clear that the leaders of the future will have to be perpetual learners. This will require (1) new levels of perception and insight into the realities of the world and also into themselves; (2) extraordinary levels of motivation to go through the inevitable pain of learning and change…; (3) the emotional strength to manage their own and others’ anxiety as learning and change become more and more a way of life; (4) new skills in analyzing and changing cultural assumptions; (5) the willingness and ability to involve others and elicit their participation; and (6) the ability to learn the assumptions of a whole new organizational culture.”
  • Psychologist and author, Charles Garfield, has been conducting a huge study of hundreds of “peak performers” in every major field and profession for over 25 years. His book, Peak Performers, is an insightful look into the performance processes and improvement systems of many of today’s most effective people. Here’s a fascinating story and an important conclusion I picked up from a presentation he gave some years ago: “The great Italian opera tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, was an average singer in the boy’s choir in Italy when he was a teenager. The only reason they let him in the choir was because his father ran it. . . he wanted to be spoken of with the same reverence and respect as his fellow countryman, Enrico Caruso. He studied and he practiced and he trained and he studied and he practiced and he trained and slowly, slowly he got there.”

Garfield’s research made him highly disdainful of the very idea of anyone being a born anything. He’s been finding, “It’s not always the person with the greatest genetic talent or it’s not always the person who has the greatest gift. It’s sometimes the people who, flat out, are the most determined to get there.”

  • Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business Administration found that “Learning managers approach key events as opportunities to learn rather than simple checkpoints in the march forward.” They found that only 10 percent of executives interviewed had this “learning mind-set” and this group “received the highest job performance ratings of the entire group.” The learners in their study demonstrated “agility of thought…focused on learning from many sources…communicated readily in metaphors and analogies, and conducted discussions in a nonlinear manner — characteristics that were rare among other managers” (there’s the importance of those verbal skills again). The research also looked at strategic alliances and found “the learning mind-set to be critical to getting these alliances started and to weathering difficult times during their evolution.”
  • Reporting on his continuing leadership research, Warren Bennis writes inOn Becoming a Leader, “They (leaders he’s interviewed) all agree that leaders are made, not born, and made more by themselves than by any external means…each of these individuals has continued to grow and develop throughout life. This is the best tradition of leadership…becoming a leader isn’t easy, just as becoming a doctor or a poet isn’t easy, and anyone who claims otherwise is fooling himself. But learning to lead is a lot easier than most of us think it is, because each of us contains the capacity for leadership.”

Not all learners are leaders. But the research clearly shows that the strongest leaders are continuous learners. They are self-made leaders.