Good leaders learn from their followers -- which is just one more reason why good leaders try to hire the very best people they can find and then give those people plenty of opportunities to continue learning.

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business and author of Serious Play tells the story of Sir Clive Woodward, coach of England's world champion rugby team several years ago. As part of their preparation, he bought each player a laptop computer and told them to become world-class IT users. Their specific assignment was to find new and better ways to improve their performance.

Woodward watched how each of them approached the task. In the end, he learned both from their methods and the data they mined -- making him a better coach.

Andy Grove, immigrant co-founder of Intel Corp., was a top-notch engineer and businessman. But he always insisted that he kept Intel at the front of the pack in the volatile, innovative and competitive microprocessor industry by hiring people smarter than himself. Some might argue that there couldn't be more than a handful of such people in all the world, but Grove somehow managed to find enough of them.

When computer technology first impacted the publishing industry, I got the reputation of being somewhat of a pioneer in integrating the two. One of my tricks was to give my people access to the technology and tell them to play with it. "See what it can do and let me know," I said. That's exactly what they did, and we all learned from one another how to be more productive and creative while spending less time and money on production processes.

My father had a lot of rules when I was growing up. Too many, I thought. But one of the centerpieces of his list of principles was: "You can learn something from every person alive. And if you haven't learned from someone yet, it's because you haven't paid enough attention." He made the lesson memorable with a true story about making a professional visit to an insane asylum and losing his way in the huge facility. Just then a patient stepped into the hallway, confronted him and said, "I am the best bed-maker in the whole world. Do you want to see me make a bed?"

The man was big and dad didn't want to disturb him, so he happily agreed to watch. The man stepped back into his room, tore the blanket and sheet off his bed, and then proceeded to put it all back together in a flash. My dad marveled at the man's speed and precision. "My first thought was to wish he had been around when I was in the Marine Corps and we were trying to pass inspection," dad said.

Maybe you don't need to learn how to make a bed, not even from the best bed-maker in the world. Even so, effective leaders know they can never afford to stop learning -- and they can never be sure what knowledge they'll need in the next few years.

By the way, that same father insisted over my protests that I take a typing class in high school. At that time those classes were filled with girls planning to be secretaries (not an altogether bad thing for me), and a sure sign of professional achievement was that you didn't have a typewriter on your desk. No, he couldn't foresee that I would become a journalist or that we would all have PCs slung over our shoulders. But he was sure that the student who could type his own papers and the college graduate who could type his own letters would be eons ahead of those who had to depend on others for such things. Thanks, Dad!

Lifelong leaders discover that the best teachers they can have are the people around them. Leaders who can learn from followers -- and are happy to admit it -- build innovative cultures that become learning laboratories even while production and morale improve.

One last story to drive home this point. One day I got a call from an elementary school principal who wanted to know if her new computer was equipped for communications. It was back in the day when computers were connected to the internet by phone line, so I asked her to look around the outside of the computer for something that looked like a phone jack. She seemed very reluctant to try this, so I took a different tack. "Where did you buy it?" I asked.

"Actually, a family in the parish gave it to us," she replied. "Do they have a child in your school?" I asked. "Yes," she replied." He's in the first grade. In fact, his parents bought him a new one so donated his old one to us."

"Great," I exclaimed. "Why not get him out of class and ask him?" There was nothing but silence on the line. "Are you there?" I asked. "Yes, I'm here," she replied. "Why not ask him?" I persisted. "He's a student," she said, clearly indicating that I was telling her to cross a line she could never get over.

"Well, maybe you can ask his parents," I suggested sheepishly. "Yes, I can do that," she said.

I didn't have the nerve to tell her that the reason she thought she could call on me for computer help was that I had been learning a lot from my son who was in junior high.

Effective leaders learn from their followers -- all of them, as much as they can.

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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