The adage that ‘knowledge is power’ is exceptionally applicable when we think of leaders. True leaders, especially in the business sphere, understand that the more knowledge they acquire, the more opportunities present themselves. It is all too common to see the most successful business leaders talk about their love for learning and how they commit to this by ensuring that they have time scheduled for personal development.

While many only see the successes of great leaders, many of them talk more about the mistakes they made in the past, which lead and educated them to be better in their pursuit of success. Henry Ford is all too commonly quoted saying, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” This not only applies to big life decisions, but even more minor everyday occurrences can teach us to adjust and refine our actions.

As well as daily refinement, perhaps one of the most remarkable abilities displayed by great business leaders is their ability to learn from anyone, especially their employees. This learning is not the same as learning from a book, but centres around the principle that the employees are closer to the business flow than the management.

Sam Walton (the founder of Walmart) knew this, and was known to spend a significant amount of time with the employees in his stores, listening to their ideas about what they thought could be improved – often going as far as meeting his truck drivers at 4am over doughnuts, to understand all the challenges they faced daily and learn a host of valuable information about his stores and the people who work in them.

Learning can also happen from what is happening outside the business, just as the COVID-19 pandemic has displayed. Whether what is currently happening within our macro environment affects us directly or not, we will face some form of impact. This can be large or small but, like all tests, serves as a lesson to be learned.

In these times of difficulty, many organisations have cleverly taken the opportunity to restructure companies, refurbish premises and try to carry out long-overdue changes, but how many have encouraged their employees to combat the dreariness of the lockdowns with learning new skills? This brings to mind the famous conversation between a CFO and CEO – CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?” CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

In an article by Rolling Stone, Steven Le Vine says: Businesses have, for a long time, taken for granted just how stable (comparatively speaking) our cultural climate has been and how quickly things can change. Businesses that have been able to pivot amid massive rapid change have survived. Meanwhile, those that have not been agile have either not survived or have taken a major loss. It’s important to see opportunity in the midst of a crisis or confluence of events, and not be upended by the fear the change may pose.

Elon Musk is famously quoted saying, “you can learn a lot more than you think you can”, and this highlights an all-important mindset. Many typically associate learning with learning something for a single purpose, i.e. business leadership training to manage better business teams, sports exercises to learn to perform better in a sport. However, the actual skill of learning is the capacity to learn a lot about a topic or topics and find ways to apply those skills so they can overlap with our day-to-day lives and our work.

The recent billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who lives by the philosophy of personalising your learning and applying what is learning, exemplified this when he committed himself to learn Mandarin and then gave an interview with it. He didn’t need to do this, and it would have been easier for the interviewer to bring in an interpreter; however, his example should be one that everyone learns to emulate. Our ability to link different skills to different tasks will provide us with the same edge that these great leaders inherently already know.

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