Greek mathematician, Euclid, was hired to teach geometry to a young, impatient Egyptian heir to the throne. The prince was an unmotivated student. He especially resisted learning basic formulas and theories before getting into practical applications. “Is there no simpler way you can get to the point?” he asked. “As the crown prince I should not be expected to deal with such trivial and useless details.” Euclid’s response gave teachers through the ages that unforgettable phrase, “I am sorry, but there is no royal road to learning.”
I’ve been coaching “Jordan,” a senior executive. He’s been asking for that royal road to learning. Jordan’s been building his personal development plan around the 360 feedback he’d received. As we discussed potential action plans, he kept complaining that this took time away from his overloaded and crazy busy daily struggle to stay on top of e-mails, meetings, and projects. “I don’t have any extra time to work on my development,” Jordan insisted.
As we looked deeper at Jordan’s work it became clear he was “majoring in the minors” by getting caught in the details and losing sight of his role to focus on the bigger strategic picture. He was also thinking of leadership development as additional activities or time to be carved from his day rather than building a series of smaller improvements to his hallway conversations, meeting agendas, or coaching on the fly.
It turned out that Jordan’s biggest misconception was to see learning as an end result rather than an ongoing process. He’s operating on the assumptions that once he has a diploma, certification, or new position, he can coast on our earlier learning efforts and use his accumulating experience. This is the deadly trap of viewing learning or change as a phase of life rather than a way of life.
As with a few dollars a day going into a savings account, learning is a way of life that accumulates little by little each day. Scottish author, Samuel Smiles, founded the modern self-help field with his 19th century bestseller, Self Help. In it he writes, “(People) of business are accustomed to quote the maxim that ‘time is money’ — but it is more; the proper improvement of it is self-culture, self-improvement, and growth of character. An hour wasted daily on trifles or in indolence, would, if devoted to self-improvement, make an ignorant (person) wise in a few years, and employed in good works, would make his/her life fruitful, and death a harvest of worthy deeds. Fifteen minutes a day devoted to self-improvement will be felt at the end of the year.”
Tomorrow we publish my November blogs in the December issue of The Leader Letter. This issue is focused on leadership and coaching development. It’s critical to dealing with today’s relentless barrage of overwhelming activities that can easily suck us into the vortex of busyness. This often leads to working harder and harder with the same tools, habits, and approaches. The urgent crowds out the important and there’s no time left to sharpen our skills or grow our personal, team, or organizational capabilities.
Highly effective leaders are always on the grow. They don’t get stuck in old habits and ruts (once defined as a grave with the ends knocked out). Constant growth, development, and adaptability to change comes through continuous learning. The 19th century British theologian and essayist, John Henry Newman once said, “Growth is the only evidence of life.” If we’re not growing, we’re like a dying tree; eventually the winds of change will snap off our rotting trunks and blow us over.