Learning to Lead (Quickly)

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How to become effective at the art of leadership and do it at speed

As a child, I can clearly remember cheating on a vocabulary test. I had a bunch of flash cards in my pocket and, when the test started, I placed them into my lap and began to shuffle through them to see the answers to each question that was asked. Everything was going perfectly until my teacher, being the perceptive sort, noticed that I was spending a hell of a lot of time staring at my knees.

Like a wolf with his prey cornered he slowly advanced across the classroom to loom over me and said, “Would you mind standing up?”. Lacking the speed of thought to decline I slowly got to my feet and a pack of flashcards fell, guiltily, to the floor.

After that everything happened rather quickly and I was sent to the headmaster's office where I learned that day that copying was a bad, devious and generally discouraged practice that only cheated the perpetrator.

A change of perspective

Fast forward ten years and a number of questionable decisions and I found myself in the middle of an exercise as part of my basic military training. We had just performed a platoon assault on an imagined enemy position, and now at the debrief, our leader for that particular attack was having his plan and execution of said attack generally torn apart. Things reach their peak when one of the Staff Sergeants poetically described our performance as similar to a troop of monkeys riding bicycles.

In what I think was an effort to salvage some sort of lesson our chief instructor decided to draw things to a close with a few remarks.

I won’t dwell on what you’ve just done. The other staff have already said quite as much as needs to be said about that. However, if you take one thing away from today then I want it to be this. You can learn as much from failure as you can from success and particularly for all of you here: as much from someone else’s failure as from their success.

From now on, when you see someone do something great I want you to copy it exactly. When you see someone do something bad I want you to say to yourself, "I will never be that idiot." If you can do that you will all become great leaders.

I’m not sure if he intended them to be so effective but those words completely changed my approach to learning and leadership and have stuck with me to this day.

Does copying work?

If we could somehow journey back to our childhood we would see that for our first few years everything we learn we learn by imitation. From facial expressions to language our entire base of knowledge comes from watching those nearest us and imitating their behaviour. In fact our brains are geared to help us with exactly this kind of learning. Importantly, research shows that as children when learning by imitation we are able to generalise the concepts we see and apply them in other similar circumstances

How effective is this?

It also turns out that this style of learning is incredibly effective. While it doesn’t increase retention or result in a more novel solution to a problem, learning by imitating simply saves you time. It gets you to the correct solution or way of doing things faster. In other words, your feedback cycle is shorter and shorter feedback cycles mean faster growth.

But there are downsides

If you’re observant you’ll have noticed that I haven’t said anything yet about copying bad behaviour. The truth is that there is a dark side to this ability to absorb information so easily. It turns out that bad behaviour can just as easily be learnt and modelled. If you work for a shouty and aggressive manager and have no other point of reference then there is an increased likelihood that when you too are a manger that this style will come naturally to you. This is just part of the reason why wide exposure to multiple different positive role models is so important but more on this another time.

So what?

It might seem obvious but the lesson here is to consciously apply this as a method to grow personally: find and work with great leaders; follow them; imitate what they do and learn from their mistakes. Avoid working for and with bad leaders; leave them and most importantly remember their mistakes and never repeat them.

Take a minute now and think back over the past week or month. What examples of great leadership have you seen? Now think about yourself. Are there any times that you could have have copied this example and applied it to an issue that you were facing?

What about taking this to the next level? Remembering that our brains work like this can also help us when as leaders we want to grow our colleagues and maybe even build that mythical unicorn: the high performing team. By pairing people with different experiences together to complete certain tasks you can unleash huge growth in ideas, development and learning. Does this remind you of everything that you might have heard about the benefits of diverse teams?

The great thing is that by doing this you are stacking the deck in your favour: dramatically increasing the chances that you will be able to achieve and exceed whatever goals you are pursuing. So the next time you have the choice maybe a little bit of copying wouldn’t be such a bad thing after-all.

This is the first in a series of articles on practical leadership, I really hope it was useful for you. If you would like to read further articles in the series enter your email below and you’ll be updated whenever a new article is published (approximately once/twice a month).