To Be a Better Leader: ‘Unlearning’ Is More Important Than ‘Learning’

This article was featured in Community Now Magazine from ‘September 2022 Volume 5 Issue 2’

For decades the leadership ‘Talking-Heads’ emphasized that good leaders were learning leaders.

I, like you, fell for that platitude. But quite frankly, I think unlearning may be more critical.

I recently had a conversation about the changes we have seen since we grew up in the 60s.

Such as; A family friend’s son publicly transitioned from his birth gender of female.

In the 60’s, there were jobs that women were not allowed to do. Pot led to debauchery. LGBQ people were harassed, jailed, and ejected from institutions like the military. People of colour were routinely openly and legally the victims of racist policies. First Nations people were kept behind locked gates.

Today is where unlearning becomes essential.

Can you unlearn things you would have bet the ranch on?

Since the discovery of thousands of Residential School unmarked graves where babies & children were unceremoniously disposed of, we have been steadily unlearning the history that was taught us. There is a whole other version of history that includes people of colour and events so brutal it is heartbreaking.

I have spent the past few decades unlearning and expanding my view of how the world was made. And how we got here.

And celebrating the changes: women are serving in the military as combat soldiers. LGBQ people are proudly out in the open. ‘Off-Colour’ humour that was once perfectly acceptable is now recognized as horrifying.

These changes are 100% needed. We need to recognize the different versions of history and acknowledge that other people have perspectives that are as valid as our own.

The Post-Pandemic Workplace

Return-to-office planning is ramping up, and as many companies have experienced tremendous change in headcount over the past two years, the transition back to the office introduces the challenge of welcoming new team members and reorienting existing employees.

We know that many of us need to unlearn what the traditional workplace looks like. From space to desks to resources, for new to returning workers to what our leadership team looks like and does.

Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach, we need new methodologies to guide our organizations to face unprecedented challenges — and opportunities — to create a better workplace experience in the post-pandemic era.

We need to unlearn that headcounts and floor space are signs of importance and value. As the economy reopens, competition will be intense. Everyone will return to a changed workplace. Expectations will differ from person to person and could create tensions across generations at work.

These new sensibilities will affect how leading companies attract, retain, and inspire talent for many years. Culture is rooted in community and the “social infrastructure” that connects people and shapes how we interact.

The modern workplace will need to foster in-person and virtual relationships, build communities at work, and allow people to achieve more.

It is super hard to unlearn something.

It is a truism that nothing is harder to do than to unlearn something you hold to be true.

For many of us, historical leadership models point to outmoded arrogance and assumptions that the leader has a hold on reality and truth.

When leaders are 100% sure about something, they convey inflexibility. In turn, their obstinacy discourages debate and dialogue. Whether they are aware of that fact or not, a leader who radiates a high level of self-assuredness communicates to those who follow that they must agree with their boss or remain silent.

This leads to compliance and complicity — even willful blindness, which can lead people not to bring up big problems when they see them.

In his article “The Simple Difficulty of Being a CEO,” leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni refers to this trait as “invulnerability” and says it’s one of the temptations of a CEO that can lead to failure.

“The adage ‘Don’t let them see you sweat may be appropriate for actors or salespeople, but for leaders, it’s a problem,” he writes.

“Arrogance hampers your ability to build trust among your people.”

Lencioni says that when leaders do not admit to being wrong, employees mirror that behaviour, which becomes “a never-ending posturing exercise, where real dialogue dies.”

The longer a successful leader has been around, the more this assuredness can tune out different thinking, approaches, and ideas.

Don’t be that leader.

Here are three shifts you can make to continue learning and unlearning:

Shift #1: Engage in continual learning — and never assume you are done learning.

How? Ask open-ended questions that begin with “What” or “How might we?”

Shift #2: Be present and “quiet the chatter.”

How? Carefully analyze the critical events or communications that challenged your thinking and beliefs. Write them down, then reflect on which of these might be ones you need to unlearn.

Shift #3: Welcome diversity in thinking and approach.

How? Immerse yourself in a divergent perspective to gain a deeper understanding of it. Follow new people on social media, watch different news channels, and keep your mind wide open.

Remember the phrase, “Minds, like parachutes, work best when open.”

You may have to unlearn what you once thought true and sure to get your mind opened