Why leaders need to be learners

Strategic leadership begins with understanding that you don't know everything.

by Management Today staff
Last Updated: 11 Apr 2019

Leadership is not a fixed quality. It has to exist with context, it fundamentally depends on the relationships you build with the people you lead. Understanding this is the first step in the transition from tactical decision-maker to strategic leader.

It also makes it essential to get out of your day-to-day role, reflect and challenge yourself, explains Tracey Camilleri, programme director for the Strategic Leadership Programme at Saïd Business School.

"Even the busiest leaders recognise the importance of stepping out at least once a year, to reflect and ask questions about what they’re doing and why," says Camilleri, who points to Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on fixed and growth mindsets – specifically the importance of believing that you can develop your capabilities with effort and persistence.

"It’s hugely important for leaders to be learners. The pace of change at the top means leaders need to continually be apprentices to the future, to gain new perspectives and take time to step out," she adds.

Take a look in the mirror

One of the most difficult, but ultimately liberating consequences of this reflection comes when you realise that you aren’t actually the best person in the room at everything you try. It’s liberating because when a strategic leader understands their own and their people’s strengths and weaknesses, they are then in a position to support their team properly.

Indeed, senior leaders usually find themselves guiding – or getting in the way of – people who are more knowledgeable in a particular field than they are. But how do you provide leadership when you’re not the expert?

Camilleri points to the people attending Saïd’s Strategic Leadership Programme, who have varied backgrounds and who are all at the top of their game. To challenge their assumptions, they’re asked, somewhat surprisingly, to conduct a choir. This experience provides a chance to consider how you might orchestrate those who are experts in a different discipline and to hear how you lead. 

Camilleri identifies four attributes that all strong business leaders should possess:

  • The confidence not to know and not to feel like they should have all the answers. They are "learning leaders". Even the strongest leaders are continuously learning.

  • Self awareness – to imagine how others experience them.

  • Grit and resilience – they are able to take the flack, to overcome obstacles and not be deflected.

  • The people, purpose and the work of their organisation matter deeply to them.

"The group is invited to look up and out. We use the broad resources of Oxford University to think about the contextual challenges that are buffeting against organisations," Camilleri explains. Access to a range of Oxford University and external faculty including professors, researchers, historians, scientists, digital philosophers and theatre directors is a key aspect of the programme, designed to stimulate new ways of thinking.

"We want to create territory for all sorts and styles of conversation and this requires people truly being present, not with half an eye on their screens," Camilleri says. The programme has, for example, Socratic forest walks ("walk-shops") rather than workshops, self-organised groups and holistic exercises like tai chi, painting, meditation. Presentations from the front are kept to a minimum; the primary modality of the programme is conversation.

It’s all designed to help people understand how to delegate with confidence. "People tend to leave the programme lighter," Camilleri explained. "It allows people to say to themselves – what can I stop doing that someone else could do? What is the brave thing that only I can do for my organisation?"


About the Said Business School Strategic Leadership Programme

The Strategic Leadership Programme is one of three Saïd Business School Leadership Programmes ranked #2 in the world by the Financial Times’ Executive Education Rankings and #1 in the UK. After the programme, participants join an alumni group of over 1,700 people from 91 different countries and 76 nationalities which provide endless opportunities to make contacts and offer a real sense of belonging. 

Step out and reflect

Discover more about how to be a strategic leader at the Strategic Leadership Programme at Saïd Business School. The next course starts on 19 May 2019.

Image credit: Annie Armitage

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