What Makes Leaders Successful? They Keep on Growing and Learning

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Sep 25, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Successful leaders continue to grow and develop on the job.

The willingness and ability to learn throughout one’s career is increasingly important as changing technology, markets and methods require new skills and behaviors. Learning ability influences the extent to which you grow as an individual, as well as how you’re perceived by others.

In fact, over the long term, your current skill-set is of secondary importance to your ability to learn new knowledge, skills and behaviors that will equip you to respond to future challenges.

These are the findings in Learning About Learning Agility, by researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership and Teachers College, Columbia University.

The researchers warn that the behaviors needed to succeed at one management level or in one setting don’t necessarily translate into other levels and found five characteristics of successful leaders.

1. Innovate: Challenge the status quo

By questioning long-held beliefs and breaking down silos between groups, leaders discover new and innovative ways to look at challenges and creatively solve them.

The more diverse your experiences, the broader the perspective you bring to your role and the more capable you’ll be of finding new ways to meet your goals. Experiment with new ideas and endeavor to find the best solution to each problem.

2. Perform: Remain calm in the midst of adversity

Agile learners draw on past experiences to remain calm, present and engaged when they face ambiguous or high-pressure situations. This allows them to tap into more insightful thinking processes – even at times when inspiration may be at its lowest.

Watch for subtle cues to build a better understanding of the problem.

3. Reflect: Take time for reflection

In spite of all the demands placed on them, agile leaders take time to step back and reflect on the work they do, the meaning they create, and their impact on their teams. Reflection can offer deeper insights into your performance, how you work with others, and how you approach challenges.

Make time to critically reflect on experiences and examine past failures for lessons.

4. Risk: Purposely seek challenging situations

Comfort and growth can’t coexist. Agile learners understand the need to push themselves and their abilities – and to explore situations where there aren’t proven processes or outcomes.

Leaders who prioritize continuous learning will come to understand the ways risk can lead to opportunity. Volunteer for roles that are ambiguous, new or otherwise challenging.

5. Defend: Be open and avoid defensive thinking

Breaking down legacy thinking is the first step to opening yourself to new possibilities.

Don’t let the way you’ve always done things – even if it’s brought you success – circumvent the pathways to new ideas and experiences. Listen carefully and seek to understand others’ perspectives for insights and lessons that may come in handy in future challenges.

Consider your role in both successes and failures and seek feedback without becoming defensive.

The extent to which we are able to become agile learners will have an impact on who we are today and who we can become tomorrow.

We’ll always face new challenges, problems and issues. What separates the once successful from the still successful is the ability to meet these changes head on and take their lessons forward.

The post appeared in a somewhat different form on

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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