Be A Better Leader: Be Knowledgeable (by being teachable)

“Be Knowledgeable” is the fourth category we’re exploring in our “Be A Better Leader” series. In this series, we are looking at a variety of attributes, characteristics, and skills that are essential to effective leadership, and discussing how they are reflected in practice. In addition to this month’s topic, the list of categories also includes “Be Genuine,” “Be Relational,” Be Trustworthy,” and “Be Excellent.” This month, as we look at what it means to “Be Knowledgeable,” we will be talking about the need to be teachable, be a learner, be a reader, and be aware, and then I will share some thoughts on a recommended related book or two.

When I was a college student, I attended a seminar that was led by a graduate student as he presented the appeal and the opportunities in his field of study, which was theology. In the course of his presentation, he shared the viewpoint that, in order to become someone able to be used by God for greatness, you need to be characterized by the acronym of F.A.T.: Faithful, Available, and Teachable. I do believe that these characteristics ought to be exhibited by any and every Christian in their relationship with God, but I also think that they ought to reflect our growth in our leadership. Particularly, I believe that becoming teachable is absolutely essential to, and in direct proportion to, our level of growth and our capacity to lead.

But don’t take my word for it; listen to the wisdom of others. Albert Einstein is generally considered to have been a man of great genius, so it might be easy to assume that, in his brilliance, there was little else he could learn and much that he could teach. While it would be true that he had a wealth of knowledge to share, he strongly believed that he was and always would be learning. He is known to have said, “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious,” and to have also stated, “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” More famously, Einstein is attributed with having said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

He was not the only person to share that sentiment. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, once said, “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, stated, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” John Rooney, American sportscaster, and radio announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, reportedly said, “The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks.” And Jackie Joyner Kersee, world class Olympic athlete in track and field, claimed, “I maintained my edge by always being a student; you will always have something new to learn.” These individuals all reflect the same sentiment: in order to grow, you have to learn; and in order to learn, you have to be teachable.

The truth is, to be a successful leader you must be teachable. If you are not teachable, you will not learn and therefore you will not grow and become a more effective leader. On the surface, it is that simple. However, this is actually more challenging than it may appear, because often those who are not teachable do not recognize it, and even more often, our own pride, competitiveness, defensiveness, or self-centeredness leads us to resist acknowledging our need to learn. Therefore, becoming teachable requires a conscious and intentional effort, learning to exhibit specific attributes and incorporate specific behaviors that help us to learn.

At it’s core, the skill of becoming teachable can be condensed to four necessary attributes and action steps, and these can be even more simplified to reflect the two more basic skills of looking and listening. Looking involves what you choose to see, listening involves what you choose to hear, and both are directly impacted by how you choose to interpret what you see and hear. Essentially, to be become teachable, you will need to follow the rule you learned as child about crossing a busy street (or the line from Elvis Presley’s Rubberneckin’) – you need to stop, look, and listen!

First, stop and look, and there are two things that help you be more teachable by looking: study and humility. We study by reading, watching, asking questions, and learning from the wisdom and experience of others. It requires intentional study of the what’s, why’s, and how’s of life and the world around us. In doing so, we add to our base of knowledge, and gain a greater understanding of the practical application and use of that knowledge. Humility is our attitude, one that makes us willing to accept our own inadequacies, deficiencies, ignorance, and failures, so that we are then also willing to learn from those mistakes and willing to learn from others.

I saw this in myself in an experience years ago. My family was having a get-together at my parents’ home, and while we were sitting around the dinner table, my dad made a comment about someday wanting to build a deck on the back of the house. One of my two brothers suggested that we do it the next day, because there likely would be very few times that we would all be together at the same time again. So, my dad sketched out the plans, and the next morning we went to the lumber store, picked up all the supplies, and then the four of us proceeded to spend the next eight hours building a large deck. What a great memory! When we were all finished, my dad commented on how he could see certain attributes of each of our personalities throughout the process. One of the observations that he made about me was that I was constantly asking questions, trying to understand why were doing things in a certain way, and learning from the experience. That observation was an accurate reflection; with an investigative nature, I have long known that you learn a lot by observing and asking questions.

Second, stop and listen, and there are also two things that help you be more teachable by listening: reflection and feedback. Reflection is an internal skill and habit, in which we step back from our actions to think about them and analyze them, honestly assessing their effectiveness and appropriateness, so that we can learn, adjust, and improve ourselves. Feedback is the input that comes from other people and from the consequences of our actions. It may be unsolicited, coming in both positive (like the complement you receive when you share a good idea at work) and negative forms (such as the words or gestures that are “shared” with you when you accidentally cut another car off on the road), or it may be intentionally solicited or provided, in the form of guidance, mentoring, and assessment. Either way, it is something from which you should learn (even the harshest criticism can potentially create some truth to be learned).

One particularly difficult experience helped me with this. My boss had called me into a meeting, and I knew that he had called for the meeting because he was unhappy with something I had done, and therefore this meeting would be a confrontation that I was not looking forward to enduring. As I shared my dread with my father, he challenged me to envision that God would be standing behind my boss, acting in much the same way as a ventriloquist, and to look past the angry words and tone and instead look for the message that God was trying to teach me. That’s not what I wanted to hear from my dad (I wanted him to affirm that my boss was all wrong and that I shouldn’t have to go through this), and his counsel did not make the meeting any more enjoyable, but it did change my response and allowed me to learn some things that I needed to learn in spite of the way in which the message was delivered. It was a hard lesson, but I learned some things that day about listening to feedback, both from my dad and from my boss.

You see, “teachability” – or, the ability to be teachable – is essential to your growth as a leader. Humble yourself, study, practice self-reflection, and listen to feedback; all of these practices will help you to learn, but they must be willingly embraced. If you will do so, you will become a more effective – and respected – leader.

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