By Martin Aldergard

Traditional “command & control” style management, optimized for efficiency and continuous improvement, is not a good match for today’s fast-changing business environment.

Today’s leaders are challenged with finding the best way for both their people and their business to navigate ever-changing markets, but often struggle to figure out exactly how to proceed. In his article The 4 Kinds of Leaders Who Create the Future, Bill Taylor suggests that “there are 4 attributes that separate leaders whose best years are ahead of them from those who are stuck in the past.”

There are 4 attributes that prepare leaders for the future:

  1. Learning Fanatics;
  2. Eager Experimenters;
  3. Personal Disruptors; and
  4. Tough-minded Optimists.

All 4 of these attributes are linked to a growth mindset. The Learning Fanatic nurtures the inherent curiosity that underlies all learning, the Eager Experimenter is confident in reflecting and learning from success and failure, the Personal Disruptor is ready to question and unlearn previously held beliefs, and the Tough-minded Optimist is confident in both their own and other’s capacity to learn, develop, and grow.

With today’s ever-changing world in mind, let’s look at how we, as leaders, can prepare ourselves for the future by better leveraging two of these attributes: The Learning Fanatic and The Eager Experimenter.

How to be a better “Learning Fanatic”

Nurture curiosity

Why is it important to be a learning fanatic? Simply put, we need to keep learning as fast as the world is changing if we want to keep up with the world around us.

For a long time, “command & control” leadership has focused on knowing and predicting outcomes and eliminating surprises. But at the same time, it has also suffocated the most important driver of learning and innovation – curiosity.

As leaders, one way to rediscover and exercise our natural curiosity is by asking more questions that lead to exploring assumptions, learning and discovery. For example:

  • What is that? How does this work?
  • How come? Is it true that…?
  • How might we…? What if…?

This is much easier said than done, as asking these questions can make leaders look weak, especially in the eyes of those that look up to us for answers in times of uncertainty and change. However, it’s important that we ask these questions, as new ideas and innovation can only come from asking questions that trigger exploration, discovery and learning.

If all of us in a leadership position are humble enough to accept that we don’t have all the answers (and confident enough to accept we don’t have to), we can let our curiosity help us be better “Learning Fanatics”.

How to be a better “Eager Experimenter”

Learn from experience

Why should we be eager experimenters? When markets constantly change, experimentation is necessary. It is therefore critical that we can learn from our successes and failures when we experiment, as we try to adapt to changing markets.

However, learning from experience doesn’t just happen. As American psychologist John Dewey famously said:

 “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on our experiences.”

Open and honest reflection is not typically something that leaders allocate much time for: we might not be used to the process, and it can feel uncomfortable to talk about failures and mistakes.

As leaders, we can set aside time for reflection and start practicing this habit in different situations, such as in a project review meeting. There are 4 ways to do this:

  • Own up to both successes and mistakes:
    This means taking responsibility for your successes as well as your mistakes, and ensuring that every team member feels open to own up to their own actions without minimizing success, assigning blame, or hiding mistakes.
  • Re-frame both successes and mistakes as learning opportunities:
    Clarify that the purpose of the reflection is for us, as a team, to extract maximum learning from our experiences to keep developing as fast as possible.
  • Lead by example:
    As leader, share one individual reflection to show your team how the process works. Select a recent challenge you faced and share how you can reflect and learn from this experience (it works better if you highlight both successes and mistakes).
  • Ask reflective questions:
    – What is the project/initiative/challenge we want to reflect on?
    – What were we trying to achieve?
    – What did we achieve?
    – What went well? Why?
    – What did not go as planned? Why?
    – Knowing what we know today, what could we have done differently?
    – How will we approach a similar situation next time?

Learning by reflecting is much harder in a company culture dominated by “command-and-control” style leadership: open and honest self-reflections are based on mutual trust and the confidence built on being accepted regardless of one’s strengths and limitations, i.e. fully embracing the eager experimenter way of thinking.

The only constant is constant learning

“At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world that no longer exits.” – Alistair Smith

As digital transformation and disruption permeates our world, the only constant is change. And the only constant in constant change is the importance of constant learning. As leaders we can enable a more learning-centered culture by trying to develop ourselves as eager experimenters and learning fanatics, and by realizing the importance of the process instead of just the result.

Start by nurturing yours and your team’s curiosity by asking questions that open people up to deeper exploration and discovery. After putting some of the new ideas into practice, take time for open and honest reflection with your team on what you can learn from the experience, and generate new ideas to continuously learn, develop, and change.

Practice new habits in a safe environment

One effective way to hone these skills is in a business simulation.

In a business simulation, participants work in teams, running competing companies through several years of operations in a fast changing and dynamic environment. All teams start with the same capital and information – but then go through multiple cycles of setting strategy, devising and execute plans, analyzing performance, and finding ways to stay competitive and drive profitability.

There is no one “winning formula” in such a dynamic environment. The “know it all”-teams might be successful early in the simulation, but as complexity and speed of change increase, those teams always lose momentum and learn good (but painful) lessons.

Instead the winning teams are those that are fastest at discovering and adapting to what is the right thing to do as the simulation progresses. They are best at staying open and curious, showing the courage and trust to make decisions, testing assumptions even with incomplete information and reflecting honestly on the results to discover how to continuously improve their thinking and outcomes. They are the “Learning Fanatics” and “Eager Experimenters”.

The simulation becomes a deep and fundamental learning experience, where leaders in a safe environment can challenge their own leadership style and practice the habits that make them more effective in today’s fast changing word.

Martin Aldergard

Senior Partner, Enpeo Consulting – Celemi Partner

Martin has more than 20 years’ experience in change management, corporate transformation, employee communication and leadership development from Sweden, China, Thailand and Vietnam. In 2002 he co-founded ENPEO Consulting, a consultancy company based in Bangkok and serve clients across Southeast Asia and beyond, specialized in ENgaging PEOple in change.

ENPEO supports a variety of initiatives, including cascading growth goals, bring new vision and strategy to life, embedding and living corporate values, critical product launches, re-branding, cost management, cross-functional communication, leadership development and high potential development.