If You Want To Be a Good Leader, Be a Good Learner

As you, the leader/entrepreneur, embark on the pursuit of innovation, there are a handful of your personal skills and talents that will contribute enormously to the success and joyfulness of your journey. These skills are of course not just specific to innovation, and as a successful business person you probably already have well-developed capabilities in many of these areas. Nevertheless, it’s well worth spending a few minutes to review the key abilities where your refined skill set will result in enormous benefits.

We will look not only at the critical skills you’ll need to be successful as an entrepreneur/innovator, but also at the team of people who will work side by side with you to transform the promise of innovation into the reality or revenue and profit growth.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that these skills are the ones that we also recommend for anyone who has the role of Chief Innovation Officer, an emerging job category that has become common among larger companies that also recognize the importance of the commitment to and pursuit of innovation. Hence, the following overview is adapted from our book The Chief Innovation Officer

The Generalist

Creating innovation is a complex process, and managing it effectively is therefore also complex. An effective leader works across many disciplines, consequently requiring knowledge and the capacity to dialog across a range of technical and interpersonal topics. Hence, as I noted above, you may well come to this work not as a specialist in any one discipline, but as a generalist who is competent, but not necessarily expert, in any one of them.

Because you’ll be working closely with people from many different parts of your organization, and with more who are outside the organization and who will contribute their thoughts and ideas to the work of creating innovation, their expertise and their questions and their opinions all have to converge and align to make innovation happen, and consequently you’ll often find yourself in the role of communications bridge, translator, integrator, and occasionally peacemaker. Here, therefore, are some of the skills you’ll probably need to develop and utilize along this fascinating journey.

The Leader

What is your leadership style? It’s an important question, as your leadership is essential to the success of your firm’s innovation efforts. Through your leadership you’re helping to define and institute the language of innovation that’s used throughout your organization, and to develop the culture as well. You’re actively involved in teaching the language so that everyone shares the same understanding of what innovation means.

Shared language is a critical element in the development of organizational culture.

Shared language is a critical element in the development of organizational culture, and since the effective innovation process consists of more than a few principles and practices that may be contrary to what some have long believed and practiced, taking an active role in spreading knowledge of the right methods is a necessary and ongoing investment.

For example, let’s talk about a dramatically powerful little word that often has huge impact on the individuals, teams, and departments throughout your organization: failure. Is failure a stigma in your company? It certainly is in many. Failure is bad for business, bad for profits, bad for brand image, and really bad for careers. But as nearly everyone recognizes, failure is not only good for innovation, it’s necessary.

Sound innovation management calls for aspiring innovators to embrace failure, intelligent failure, that is, because they can learn so much from it. The objective is to fail in the right ways, in learning situations that don’t the brand or the bottom line, which are failures in labs, in prototypes, in mock-ups, in concepts, where they tell you so much about what works and doesn’t work.

In the innovation process, in fact, it’s entirely the case that the faster you fail the faster you succeed. Hence, there are some language issues to address around innovation, and in addition to “failure” there’s a long list of words and concepts and practices to become conversant in.

Terms such as “innovation” and “creativity” need precise definitions, as do “innovation portfolio,” “empathy,” “observation,” and “business model,” to name but a few that we will have mentioned already.

Additional dimensions of your leadership role will include your key efforts as a communicator about the purpose of innovation and about the process itself, a point that we’ve elaborated on throughout this book. In addition, there are roles and skills related to factors as diverse as learning, curiosity, asking questions, and analyzing, as we will explore below.

The Learner

A leader’s job perhaps above all is a learning job, so a great interest in and love for learning is one of your most important qualities. This may sound simple, or obvious, or trite, but in fact learning is a complex undertaking, and not everyone is good at it; to succeed you’ll need to be very good at it.

The learning that you’re responsible for is not yours alone, but rather the learning of the entire organization as it pertains to innovation, and this is neither a simple issue to define nor a simple one to accomplish.

So what, exactly, is learning? In our brains, learning means that change is occurring, because the brain is literally wired together as a collection of connected neurons. The connections are not random of course, they’re purposeful, and new connections are made when learning occurs, while old connections may simultaneously be severed. We can say, then, that learning occurs only when the existing structure of the brain’s neural connections are not adequate to meet the situation, and an investment (a physiological investment that is) is required to create new neural structure, new connections. Conversely, when non-learning happens (that is, when a repetitive action has occurred that did not require learning), it tells us that the situation at hand required knowledge or skills you already had, and the existing wiring of the brain was sufficient to the situation.

… a powerfully apt metaphor for the way that organizations also seem to be wired for repetition.

While this is literally what’s happening, it seems also to be a powerfully apt metaphor for the way that organizations also seem to be wired for repetition, for doing the same thing over and over.

They too commonly resist making the necessary investments in new connections because this appears to be an unnecessary cost. Too frequently, however, such a decision is revealed to be an error; the world has changed, and we needed to learn how to do something new, but we didn’t. Business failure is the common result after too many of these wrong choices.

In more common language we would call it a failure to innovate. Here we list some companies that have been afflicted with this malady in recent times: Kodak (bankrupt), Nokia (devastated by the smart phone; sold off to Microsoft), RIM (barely hanging on), Sears (didn’t keep up with Wal-Mart), GM (bankrupt a couple years ago, following which a massive and very fast learning phase ensued), Circuit City (didn’t keep up with Best Buy’s changes), etc., etc.

These were all learning failures writ large. Learning at a more modest scale for the individual and for the organization requires that the brain, the people, and the organization do things differently, that they consider new information, develop new patterns, understand new experiences and new processes.

This is work, and in the interest of physiological efficiency your brain avoids it when possible, as it requires the investment of precious energy and attention. In the interest of operational efficiency your organization may also wish to avoid it, which it does at its own peril.

In contrast to this pattern, admittedly oversimplified, the learning brain is constantly changing, constantly adapting itself and its structure to integrate new information and new experiences into the old worldview, into the old perspective. Some people, naturally creative people often, view this investment not as a burden, but largely as a pleasure; they like to think hard, and for a long time, about interesting and tough problems.

Here’s an example: it was reported that Bill Gates once took a vacation with his girlfriend in the days before he was married, and they supposedly watched videos about biotech and genetic engineering for an entire weekend, more or less nonstop. It takes a unique sort of person to consider such a weekend, “a vacation,” not to mention the sheer intellectual stamina that must have been needed. Then again, what did Gates achieve in his life? A penchant for learning indeed!

And the willingness to engage in absorbing new information, rewiring his own brain. You’ll have some of that skill as a successful leader. A whole weekend of science videos? Maybe not. But maybe. Possibly. Yeah, go for it.

As a business leader, your learning responsibility isn’t just about yourself, for in fact you have to inspire and help the entire organization to be a learning organization, to make that investment in seeing what is already different, what may or will be different in the future, and what else can and should be different as a result of your own efforts.

There’s an aspect of this conversation about learning that’s important to be aware of because it may have some significant impact on your relationship with other members of the executive team, particularly if they’re in their fifties or sixties. Consider the following comments from psychiatrist Norman Doidge:

In childhood, our brains readily shape themselves in response to the world, developing neuropsychological structures, which include our pictures and representations of the world. These structures form the neuronal basis for our perceptual habits and beliefs, all the way up to complex ideologies. … these structures tend to get reinforced early on, if repeated, and become self-sustaining. As we age … it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to. We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable; we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore, or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs, or perception of the world, because it is very distressing and difficult to think and perceive in unfamiliar ways. Increasingly, the aging individual acts to preserve the structures within, and when there is a mismatch between his internal neurocognitive structures and the world.²

Doidge’s very fine book The Brain that Changes Itself examines the ways in which the brain changes and adapts to new demands and circumstances. In the passage quoted here, Doidge refers to the work of Bruce Wexler in his book, Brain and Culture.³ Both books are invaluable resources for the innovation practitioner, for reasons that the above quote should make entirely obvious.

Here you are, deep in the pursuit of innovation, fending off the naysayers and the opponents of change, and there they are, dismissing your great work because it does not match their beliefs. How many examples of corporate suicide can this neurocognitive pattern explain? Can it explain why Kodak, which invented the digital camera, was also destroyed by it? Can it explain why Nokia, masters of the world cell phone market, was brought down by the smart phone? Can it explain why Sears, the greatest global retailer in its prime, is now sucking Wal-Mart’s exhaust fumes?

…the neuro- limitations of senior managers may indeed be responsible for a great many of the corporate failures of the modern world.

We cannot know for sure, but I believe that in fact the neuro- limitations of senior managers may indeed be responsible for a great many of the corporate failures of the modern world. The inability to come to grips with change, the incapacity to adequately support innovation, and the resulting crash of creative destruction, it is entirely plausible that these can be explained by the cognitive limitations of senior managers.

So what does this mean? Our theme in this section is learning, and the ideal innovative organization is constantly engaged in the learning process in direct contrast with the learning-disabled. Leaders of innovative organizations are constantly engaged in seeking and finding new information and new experiences, and integrating them into ongoing operations, which activities are also central to the search for innovation.

There’s a paradox here, for although you, as leader, do indeed have a responsibility to learn for the organization as a whole, it’s also true that you literally cannot learn for someone else; everyone, each individual, must have their own learning experiences. So part of your role is to define, create, and structure opportunities for people to engage with new information, to understand the meanings, consequences, and the implications of that information for their roles and for the organization as a whole. Based on Doidge’s work, we see that it is especially important for you to create and deploy such learning experiences for your colleagues on the senior management team.

In the language of the pertinent and powerful discipline called “accelerated learning,” which is focused on understanding how people learn, and how to help them learn more efficiently, we refer to a concept called “experience first, label second.” What this means is that each individual must have their own experiences, and based on these experiences we can then help them to organize and structure their own personal library of knowledge. We do this by providing labels or patterns or models that explain what their learning could mean, and how those experiences fit into a larger whole, into a larger framework.

The point of “experience first, label second” is that learning occurs most readily when we enable or allow people to have the experience first, and only afterwards provide them with the label which pertains to it. In this way, they actually do learn. In contrast, label-first – experience second often truncates the learning process as it is a great temptation to just memorize the label and forego the experience entirely. The common school room question, “Is this going to be on the test?” is an artifact of the label-first teaching model, in that the experience itself is devalued and the focus of the effort is entirely on meeting an external validation requirement rather than on the intrinsic value of the concepts that are the ostensible purpose of the entire activity. In the brain that has been “taught to the test,” any real or enduring capability has been sacrificed to conformity, leaving the individual lacking depth, comprehension, and true understanding. Learning has thus not occurred.

This all explains why in chemistry class you actually have to do the experiments, and not just read about them; and why it’s different to walk along the Seine in Paris than it is to read about it in a book, or even see it in a movie. Experience has a great many more dimensions than memorization or rote learning, it has a quality and depth that cannot be substituted, because the impact cannot be achieved any other way than actually doing it; only in genuine learning does the brain rewire itself.

Your role is to embody the spirit of learning, to set up genuine, open-ended, experience-first, label-second learning opportunities for others.

Hence, your role is to embody the spirit of learning, to set up genuine, open-ended, experience-first, label-second learning opportunities for others (and for yourself, for that matter) whereby meaningful and important learning does indeed occur.

How will you do that?

You will find many different ways to bring new information and experiences to your organization, and for them to engage with it in the process of assimilating its meaning and assessing its consequences. The information I’m referring to will have many qualities; it will be challenging, interesting, surprising, confusing, perhaps difficult, or even unpleasant. And it will inevitably be important, necessary, and provocative.

It will not all be written, printed, or on a screen; it may also come in the form of a trip, or a visit, or a trade show, or a conversation, or a workshop. It may be open-ended, in that you will create a learning opportunity without knowing what the outcome will be, a journey into the unknown. This is a journey that will be fueled by a unique and uniquely human quality, one that has been a core driver in the remarkable advance of human civilization across thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. That fuel is curiosity.

In the next chapter excerpt we explore additional skills / roles of the innovation leader: curiosity, question asker, manager, facilitator, coach, designer and the open door.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:

Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.


  1. Langdon Morris. The Chief Innovation Officer. Innovation Academy, 2013.
  2. Doidge, Norman, M.D. The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books, 2007. P. 304.
  3. Wexler, Bruce. Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change. MIT, 2006.

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